China’s Chang’e 5 unmanned probe completed a tricky docking manoeuvre with a spacecraft orbiting the moon on Sunday, moving one step closer in its mission to bring back lunar samples for the first time in more than 40 years. The probe, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, lifted off the lunar surface on Thursday and linked up with orbiting spacecraft at 6.12am, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in Beijing. A robot arm lifted the container holding the samples into the orbiter. The orbiter will separate from the probe and leave lunar orbit on its return journey to Earth. China launched the spacecraft on November 24 to bring back rocks and soil from the moon in the first bid by any country to retrieve samples since 1976. “From the point of view of the samples, the main difference from the previous samples obtained by the United States and the Soviet Union is the difference in the landing area,” Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the CNSA’s Lunar Exploration and Space Programme Centre, told state broadcaster CCTV on Friday. “The material composition and stratum structure of different sampling points may be different so by studying these samples, we can reconstruct the formation process of this area, and the scientific understanding of the cause and evolution of the moon,” Pei said. The bold ambitions behind China’s Chang’e 5 moon mission The CNSA did not disclose the weight of the samples. But on Sunday, state news agency Xinhua quoted Pei as saying that China had chosen a “complicated technological approach”, including using an unmanned vehicle and docking in lunar orbit, to “bring back more samples and lay a technological foundation for manned lunar missions”. The Chang’e 5 spacecraft is expected to land in the snow-covered grasslands of Inner Mongolia in northern China in the middle of this month. China is the third country to retrieve samples from the moon after the US Apollo programme brought 382kg (840 pounds) of lunar rocks and soil back to Earth over six moon-landing missions, and the former Soviet Union collected a little over 300 grams of lunar samples from three missions.