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China to launch probe to moon to retrieve lunar rocks

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BEIJING: China plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft to the moon this week to bring back lunar rocks in the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from Earth's natural satellite since the 1970s.

The Chang'e-5 probe, named after the mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, will seek to collect material that can help scientists understand more about the moon's origins and formation.

The mission will test China's ability to remotely acquire samples from space, ahead of more complex missions. If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, following the US and the Soviet Union decades ago.

Since the Soviet Union crash-landed the Luna 2 on the moon in 1959, the first human-made object to reach another celestial body, a handful of other countries including Japan and India have launched moon missions. In the Apollo programme, which first put men on the moon, the US landed 12 astronauts over six flights from 1969 to 1972, bringing back 382kg of rocks and soil.

China's probe, scheduled to launch in the coming days, will attempt to collect 2kg of samples in a previously unvisited area in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or "Ocean of Storms".

The Chang'e-5 mission may help answer questions such as how long the moon remained volcanically active in its interior and when its magnetic field - key to protecting any form of life from the sun's radiation - dissipated.

Within the next decade, China plans to establish a robotic base station to conduct unmanned exploration in the south polar region.

In July, China launched an unmanned probe to Mars in its first independent mission to another planet. - REUTERS