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Chinese Moon Probe To Return Lunar Samples Back To Earth

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China is celebrating a trip to the moon. A small, robotic probe has been gathering samples from its surface. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on what that probe has been collecting.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The last time America took off from the moon was a while ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRISON SCHMITT: Three. Two. One. Ignition.

GENE CERNAN: We're on our way, Houston.

BRUMFIEL: In December of 1972, two astronauts aboard Apollo 17 lifted off. They carried over 240 pounds of moon rocks, which sounds like a lot unless you study moon rocks for a living like Sarah Valencia.

SARAH VALENCIA: In the grand scale of things, we don't have them very much, especially since not all of it is available for study.

BRUMFIEL: Valencia, who's at the University of Maryland, says some rocks remain under seal, others have been given away. And this is why she's excited about China's latest mission known as Chang'e 5.

VALENCIA: These samples are really valuable.

BRUMFIEL: China's been to the moon before, but not like this.

VALENCIA: One of the things that makes sample return so difficult is all of the engineering steps that have to line up and work.

BRUMFIEL: The probe must reach the moon, land, scoop up samples, then seal them safely in a container and then take off and return. So far, it seems to be going perfectly. The probe left the moon late Thursday, Beijing time, with about four pounds of samples on board.

VALENCIA: All moon rocks are good moon rocks.

BRUMFIEL: This load, while small, is important because it comes from a relatively young part of the moon's surface. Most Apollo missions landed on older parts of the moon.

VALENCIA: And so having this data point will be very valuable.

BRUMFIEL: Because it can help fill in our picture of the moon's past. For China, the mission is also an opportunity to flex its technical prowess and, possibly, prepare for future crewed missions to the moon. The probe must still return to Earth and deliver its samples to waiting scientists. That's expected to happen later this month.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN JOHANNSSON SONG, "HEPTAPOD B") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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