Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Having successfully touched down on the moon and spent the last 48 hours collecting rock samples, China's Chang'e-5 lander is now preparing to rendezvous and dock with the spacecraft's orbiter.
The Chang'e-5 spacecraft features four unique components: an orbiter, a lander, an ascender and a returner. On Tuesday, the lander-ascender combination dispatched from the orbiter and landed on the lunar surface Tuesday, spending the next two days collecting samples.
Thursday morning, the lander's rocket component, the ascender, blasted off from the lunar surface -- moon rocks in tow -- to begin it's journey to rendezvous with the orbiter on Saturday. The maneuver will be the first of its kind.
"After automatically detecting and identifying obstacles, the probe selected the site and touched down on the north of the Mons Rumker in Oceanus Procellarum, also known as the Ocean of Storms, on the near side of the moon," China's state news agency Xinhua reported.
The 1.2-billion-year-old volcanic plain where the Chang'e-5 lander scavenged for rock samples is considerably younger than the region of the moon visited by American and Soviet spacecraft.
The rocks from Mons Rumker could help scientists gain new insights into the timing of the moon's formation, as well as the development of its geologic features.
"Domestic and overseas scientists will all have a chance to get the lunar samples to be brought back by Chang'e-5 for research," Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the Chinese National Space Agency, told Xinhua.
If Thursday's maneuvers go according to plan, China will move one step closer to becoming the first nation in more than 40 years to return lunar samples. Both NASA and the Soviet Union's space agency collected and returned lunar rocks in the 1970s.
"The orbiter is expected to carry the returner back to Earth," according to Xinhua. "The returner is scheduled to reenter the atmosphere and land at Siziwang Banner in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region."
Last year, the China became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon when Chang'e-4 touched down near the moon's south pole.