The Chang'e 5 Chinese lunar capsule has returned to Earth today with the first fresh rock and debris samples from the moon in more than 40 years.
The spacecraft's capsule landed in Sziwang district of Inner Mongolia, state media reported shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday in China (1 p.m. eastern time on Wednasay).
Two of the four modules of Chang'e 5 set out on the moon on December 1, collecting about 4.4 pounds of samples by scooping them off the surface and drilling about 6 feet into the lunar crust.
The samples were deposited in a sealed container, which was transported to the return module by an ascent vehicle.
The capsule had previously separated from its orbiter module and made a descent from Earth's atmosphere to reduce its speed before flying through and parachuting to the ground.
The successful mission was the latest breakthrough for China's increasingly ambitious space program, which includes a robotic mission to Mars and plans for a permanent space station in orbit.
Recovery crews had prepared helicopters and SUVs for signals sent by the lunar probe to locate them in the darkness that envelopes the vast snow-covered region of far north China that has long served as a landing site for China's manned spacecraft Shenzhou.
With the return of the probe, scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rock for the first time since the Soviet Luna 24 robotic probe in 1976.
These rocks and debris are believed to be billions of years younger than those of the US and the former Soviet Union, and offer new insights into the history of the moon and other bodies in the solar system.
They originate from a part of the moon known as the Oceanus Procellarum or Ocean of Storms, near a site called Mons Rumker, which was thought to have been volcanic in ancient times.
Chang'e 5 took off from a launch site in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan on November 23.
The Chinese-flagged lunar lander stopped functioning shortly after, after being used as a launch pad for the ascent, which was ejected from the orbiter after transmitting the samples and came to rest on the lunar surface.
It was China's third successful lunar landing, but the only one to take off from the moon.
The probe's predecessor, Chang'e 4, was the first probe to land on the little-explored far side of the moon, and continues to send data on conditions that could affect future prolonged human sojourn missions on the moon.
The moon has been a particular focus of China's space program, which says it plans to land humans there and possibly establish a permanent base. A timetable or other details were not disclosed.
China has also been involved in Mars exploration efforts. In July, it launched the Tianwen 1 probe into space, using a lander and a robotic rover to search for water.
China's space program has been more cautious than the US-Soviet space race of the 1960s, which was marked by deaths and false starts.
In 2003, China became the third country after the Soviet Union and the United States to send an astronaut into orbit alone.
The latest flight involved cooperation with the European Space Agency, which helped oversee the mission.
Amid concerns about the secrecy of China's space program and close military ties, the US is prohibiting NASA-CNSA cooperation unless Congress approves.
This has prevented China from participating in the International Space Station, which it is trying to compensate for with the launch of an experimental space station, and plans to establish a permanent orbiting outpost within the next two years.