A Chinese space probe successfully returned to Earth on Wednesday with samples from the moon, making China only the third country in history to accomplish such a mission.
China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft landed in the Inner Mongolia region after a 23-day mission to collect lunar rocks from the near side of the moon. It’s the first time moon samples have been returned to Earth in nearly 50 years. China now joins the ranks of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in pulling off the feat.
The capsule landed in the Siziwang Banner of Inner Mongolia, according to Chinese state media. It’s estimated that more than 4 pounds of lunar rocks and dust is stowed aboard the spacecraft, officials from the China National Space Administration have said.
The successful flight is a major milestone for China’s space program, which has spent 16 years preparing a mission to orbit and land on the moon, and subsequently collect samples to return to Earth.
The Chang’e 5 probe launched on Nov. 24 from the island of Hainan. The spacecraft touched down on the moon in early December at a site known as the Ocean of Storms.
Using its drill and robotic arm, the lander retrieved samples from the moon’s surface and from more than 6 feet underground, according to the China National Space Administration. The probe began its journey back to Earth on Saturday, Dec. 12.
Scientists have said that the lunar samples could reveal insights into the moon’s formation and history, including volcanic activity.
The Chang’e 5 mission is a key part of China’s ambitious lunar exploration program. The country is aiming to land Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2030, and eventually intends to set up a permanent research station on the lunar surface.
China is not the only nation with its sight set on Earth’s closest celestial neighbor: NASA is planning to send American astronauts back to the moon by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.