(Bloomberg) -- A Chinese spacecraft carrying samples collected on the far side of the moon returned to Earth on Tuesday, an important milestone in China’s path for future lunar exploration.

The Chang’e-6 spacecraft landed in a grasslands region of Inner Mongolia around 2 pm local time, according to a video stream from state media.

The first sample-return mission to go to the moon’s far side, where communications are more difficult because it never faces Earth, Chang’e-6 was expected to carry about 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of material collected from the South Pole-Aitken Basin, one of the oldest impact craters in the solar system.

The mission was the second by China to the more distant part of the moon, following the 2019 landing by Chang’e-4. No other country has sent a spacecraft to the far side, although NASA has plans to support missions there by US spacecraft.

China and the US both want to send astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade and are eager to learn more about possible reserves of water ice, which could potentially be used to make oxygen and rocket fuel for long-term human habitation.

By coincidence, Chang’e-6 landed just as NASA and Boeing Co. have experienced more problems with the troubled Starliner mission to the International Space Station. After many setbacks that pushed back by seven years its first crewed mission, Starliner finally launched on June 6 and since then has missed several targets for the return of its two-astronaut crew.

The US agency scrapped the scheduled June 26 return date and has yet to set a new time for their return.

Chang’e-5, China’s previous lunar probe, was a sample-return mission from the near side that brought about 1.7 kilograms of regolith back to Earth in 2020.    

The surface of the moon’s far side is very different, without the smooth areas known as lunar maria that are on the near side and are visible from Earth. The samples gathered by Chang’e-6 could therefore help scientists get a much better understanding of the moon, according to Quentin Parker, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research.

The far side “has a different age profile that could be a much earlier time in the formation of the moon, and potentially in the formation of the Earth,” he said. “This will be a veritable cornucopia of lunar geological marvels.”

The Hong Kong lab last month signed a preliminary agreement with the International Lunar Observatory Association in Hawaii to put a specially designed telescope on the next Chinese lunar mission, Chang’e-7, that’s scheduled for 2026.

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