China completes its first docking in lunar orbit

China hopes to catch up with the US and Russia in the space race

A Chinese probe carrying samples from the lunar surface successfully docked on Sunday with a spacecraft orbiting the Moon, another space first for the nation, state media reported.

The manoeuvre was part of the ambitious Chang'e-5 mission – named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess – to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades.

The cargo capsule carrying lunar rocks and soil lifted off from the surface on Thursday, and docked with the orbiter on Sunday morning, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

Xinhua said it was China's first "rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit".

The cargo capsule's departure from the lunar surface on Thursday was also a first: the first lift-off of a Chinese craft from an extraterrestrial body.

The capsule transferred the Moon samples to the orbiter, which will separate and return to Earth, Xinhua said.

China is looking to catch up with the US and Russia after taking decades to match their achievements, and has poured billions into its military-run space programme.

Its space agency said previously that "before lift-off, the Chinese flag was raised on the Moon's surface".

Scientists hope the samples from Chang'e-5 will help them learn more about the Moon's origins and volcanic activity on its surface.

If the return journey is successful, China will become only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, after the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.