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China moon probe heads back to Earth :

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It will become the third country to have retrieved lunar samples after U.S., Russia .

A Chinese spacecraft carrying rocks and soil from the moon has begun its journey back to Earth, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday, putting China on course to become the first country to successfully retrieve lunar samples since the 1970s.

A successful landing in Inner Mongolia would make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples after the United States and the Soviet Union. The plan was to collect 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of samples, although it has not been disclosed how much was actually gathered.

Engines on the Chang'e-5 probe were ignited 230 km from the lunar surface early on Sunday, Beijing time, before being shut down after 22 minutes with the craft on a trajectory towards Earth, Xinhua said, citing a China National Space Administration statement.

The Chang'e-5 was launched on Nov. 24 and a lander vehicle touched down on the moon on Dec. 1. The mission was expected to take around 23 days in total.

The last lunar sample return mission was in 1976.

A total of just under 400 kg were picked up by American Apollo astronauts and the Soviets' robotic Luna landers. 

But all these samples were very old - more than three billion years in age. The Chang'e-5 materials should be quite different. 

The Chinese mission has targeted a high volcanic region called Mons Rümker. It's in the northwest of the nearside of the Moon. 

Samples from this location may be no more than 1.2 or 1.3 billion years old, and, as such, should provide additional insights on the geological history of the Moon.

The samples will also allow scientists to more precisely calibrate the "chronometer" they use to age surfaces on the inner Solar System planets. 

This is done by counting craters (the more craters, the older the surface), but it depends on having some definitive dating at a number of locations, and the Apollo and Soviet samples were key to this. Chang'e-5 would offer a further data point.