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A capsule from China’s Chang’e-5 probe touched down in Inner Mongolia bearing rocks from the Moon.

CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Newscom

China lands its Moon rocks in Inner Mongolia

China’s Chang’e-5 mission made a triumphant return around 1 p.m. EST today, landing in the middle of the night on the dark frozen plains of Inner Mongolia, Chinese state media reported. The capsule’s return marks the first time China has collected rocks from the Moon—and the first time any nation has accomplished the feat since 1976.

The 3-week-long mission was the most complicated in the history of China’s robotic space exploration program, involving a lunar landing, furious scooping and drilling of up to 2 kilograms of grit, and then an ascent and rendezvous with an orbiter, which carried the samples back to Earth. The China National Space Administration, typically secretive with its missions, showed growing confidence in its space program, with live broadcasts of the rocket launch and return of its sample capsule, which glowed bright white from its heat in the infrared cameras that spotted it.

Chang’e-5 sampled near Mons Rümker, a 70-kilometer-wide volcanic mound on the Moon’s near side, which may have erupted as recently as about 1.3 billion years ago. Although scientists won’t know exactly how much rock the mission collected until the capsule is opened, the mission did sample what is believed to be the youngest terrain from Mons Rümker, says Long Xiao, a planetary geoscientist at the China University of Geosciences. “We are very happy with the landing site, it is where we wanted to go.”

Dating that volcanic material will help inform age estimates for the entire Solar System, and, if it is indeed young, it will raise questions about how the Moon retained so much heat for so long.

Later this week the sample capsule will be turned over to a program under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s National Astronomical Observatories, which has built clean room facilities with glove boxes so samples can be handled in a nitrogen environment to minimize the chance of contamination. The samples will be divided into portions for research, exhibition, and backup storage.

Chinese officials have promised to share the precious cargo internationally. One possible vehicle for doing so is through the new International Lunar and Planetary Research Center, under the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences’s Institute of Geology. The center aims to have international groups working with lunar and other extraterrestrial samples from China and elsewhere, says Alexander Nemchin, a geologist at Curtin University and a co-chair of the group. When collaborators can jointly examine a variety of returned Moon rocks, “then you can start making progress,” he says. But under a 2011 U.S. law, NASA’s Moon rocks cannot be shared with China’s scientists, a limitation that may lead China to block U.S. access to its samples.

With reporting by Dennis Normile.