China has successfully recovered an experimental spacecraft that flew around the moon and back in a test run for the country’s first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface.
Saturday’s event marked the first time in almost four decades that a spacecraft has returned to Earth after travelling around the moon.
The eight-day mission was aimed at obtaining experimental data and testing technologies for re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere involving guidance, navigation and control, heat shield designs, and trajectory fine-tuning for the future moonlander, christened Chang’e 5.
The spacecraft returned to Earth using a Soviet-designed method in which it first bounced off the atmosphere in order to slow its entry speed and avoid burning up. It then landed on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia just before dawn.
China plans to send a spacecraft to the moon in 2017 and have it return to Earth after collecting soil samples.
If successful, that future mission would make burgeoning space power China only the third country after the United States and Russia to meet such a challenge.
China’s lunar exploration programme has already launched a pair of orbiting lunar probes and last year landed a craft on the moon with a rover onboard.
None of those were designed to return to earth.
China has also hinted at a possible crewed mission to the moon at a future date if officials decide to combine the human spaceflight and lunar exploration programmes.
Beijing insists its space programme is for peaceful purposes, but the US Defense Department has highlighted China’s increasing space capabilities and said Beijing is pursuing a variety of activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.