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Chang'e 5 mission continues as ascender separates

An illustration of the ascender of China's Chang'e 5 robotic lunar probe departing from the reentry capsule. The ascender of China's Chang'e 5 robotic lunar probe departed from the reentry capsule at 12:35 pm, the China National Space Administration said.

The orbiter-reentry capsule combination will continue orbiting the moon before setting out on their journey back to Earth, the administration said in a brief statement on Sunday afternoon.

The ascender rendezvoused and docked with the reentry capsule early Sunday morning then transferred a sealed container holding 2 kilograms of lunar rocks and soil into the capsule.

The operation has become the first automated rendezvous and docking for any spacecraft in lunar orbit.

After arriving in Earth orbit, the orbiter-reentry capsule pair will break up and the reentry capsule will conduct a series of complicated maneuvers to return to a preset landing site in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region in mid-December.

Chang'e 5, China's largest and most sophisticated lunar probe, has four main components-an orbiter, lander, ascender and reentry capsule. The spacecraft was launched by a Long March 5 heavy-lift carrier rocket on Nov 24 at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province, setting out on China's most challenging lunar adventure and the world’s first mission since 1976 to bring lunar samples back to Earth.

The probe separated into two parts-the orbiter-reentry capsule combination and the lander-ascender combination-while in lunar orbit early Monday morning.

Late on Tuesday, the lander-ascender combination landed on the moon and soon began to use a drill to obtain underground samples from 2 meters beneath the surface.

It finished underground operations on Wednesday morning. The craft then used a mechanical arm to scoop up surface dirt. Samples were packed into a vacuum container inside the ascender.

All collection and packing processes finished on Wednesday night, much sooner than expected.

The ascender carrying the samples activated an engine on Thursday night to lift itself into an elliptical lunar orbit to prepare for rendezvous and docking with the reentry capsule, marking the first time a Chinese spacecraft has blasted off from an extraterrestrial body.

If the Chang'e 5 mission is successful, it will make China the third nation to bring samples back from the moon, after the United States and the former Soviet Union.

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