China may have been a latecomer to the moon, but when its capsule full of lunar rocks and soil returned to Earth early Thursday, it set the stage for a new space race over the coming decades. This time, it will be a competition over resources on the moon that could propel deeper space exploration.

The country’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft gathered as much as 4.4 pounds of lunar samples from a volcanic plain known as Mons Rümker in a three-week operation that underlined China’s growing prowess and ambition in space. It was China’s most successful mission to date.

The United States and the Soviet Union competed for supremacy in an epic space race in the 1960s and ’70s, during which they brought back lunar samples, but that was a different era. Now China is in the fray, and today’s competition — once seemingly the realm of science fiction — could be equally intense and more mercantile.

The Chinese are eager to flaunt their technical skills and explore the solar system. Like the United States, the country has a broader goal to establish a lunar base that could exploit its potential resources and serve as a launching pad for more ambitious missions.

a statement, the China National Space Administration said a capsule with the moon rocks landed in Inner Mongolia at about 2 a.m. local time (it was around 1 p.m. Eastern

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