China places its communist flag on the moon

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A Chinese spacecraft departed from the moon on Thursday, leaving behind a sign of its trip on the lunar surface.

Hua Chuying, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, tweeted images of the nation's flag planted on the moon, while wishing the Chang'e 5 ship a safe journey back.

Chang'e 5's unmanned mission was the latest in a series that comprises the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. Departing with a load of lunar rocks, the mission represented the first time a spacecraft tried to return moon samples since the Soviet Union did it in the 1970s. 

NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen congratulated China on its landing which took place Tuesday.

"Congratulations to China on the successful landing of Chang’e 5," Zubuchen tweeted.

The tweet continued: "This is no easy task. When the samples collected on the Moon are returned to Earth, we hope everyone will benefit from being able to study this precious cargo that could advance the international science community."

NASA tweeted in November that it hoped China would share "data with the global scientific community to enhance our understanding of the Moon like our Apollo missions did & [sic] the Artemis program will."

Chang'e 5's return module is supposed to touch down around the middle of December on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where China's manned Shenzhou spacecraft have made their returns since China first put a man in space in 2003. China is only the third country to put a human in space following Russia and the United States.

The mission of Chang'e 5 has revived talk of China sending a crewed mission to the moon and possibly building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects.

China also launched Its first temporary orbiting laboratory in 2011 and a second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station after 2022, possibly to be serviced by a reusable spaceplane.

While China is boosting cooperation with the European Space Agency and others, interactions with NASA are severely limited by concerns over the Chinese space program's secretive nature and close links to the country's military. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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