China's Chang'e 5 probe is heading back to Earth with Moon rocks

Several days after launching the lunar probe, officials in Beijing have announced that the Chang'e 5 vessel is on its way back to Earth carrying Moon rocks for study. Assuming the lander arrives intact, this will represent the first time lunar rock samples have been brought to Earth since the 1970s. Chang'e 5 took off from the Moon around 11 AM EST on Thursday.

Chang'e 5 is China's third spacecraft to successfully land on the Moon and the first for the nation when it comes to taking off again for a return trip home. The lander module, which was left behind on the Moon, drilled into the surface as part of its sample collection mission. The contents were secured in a canister.

At around 11 PM local time in Beijing, officials announced that the mission's ascender module had successfully lifted off the Moon, after which point it will pair with its return vehicle and make the relatively short trip back to Earth. China's space administration plans to land the spacecraft in Inner Mongolia for retrieval.

The Chang'e 5 mission also involved photographing the Moon's surface near the landing site and depositing an unfurled Chinese flag on the surface. The mission represents China's growing presence in space, paving the way for what may one day be the nation's own crewed lunar mission.

China's space ambitions have raised some concerns over the potential militarization of space. NASA has historically avoided work with the China National Space Administration over national security concerns and continues its own ambitious effort to massively increase its presence on the lunar surface within a handful of years.