moon from space
The moon as photographed by the Expedition 28 crew aboard the International Space Station. (Reuters/Nasa)

A Chinese spacecraft has completed the country's first unmanned return space mission to the Moon.

In doing so, the orbiter became the first space craft to successfully fly around the Moon and back to Earth in almost 40 years. The spacecraft landed in Inner Mongolia just before dawn on Saturday.

The experimental mission is seen as a dry run for a future Chinese moonlander, which will become the country's first unmanned space mission to the lunar surface in 2017.

The eight-day mission was aimed at obtaining experimental data from space and testing technologies that will be needed for an unmanned space mission to the Moon to be able to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, including guidance, navigation, control, heat shield designs, and trajectory fine-tuning.

China plans to send a spacecraft, called Chang'e 5, to travel to the moon in 2017. The moonlander will collect soil samples from the Moon's surface for analysis.

If successful, that future Chang'e 5 mission would establish China as a new power in speace travel and research. China will become only the third country, after the US and Russia, to send a moonlander to the lunar surface.

China's lunar exploration programme has already sent two orbiting lunar probes to the Moon, and last year landed a craft on the moon with a rover onboard. But the successful orbiter is the only spacecraft that was designed to return to Earth.

China has also hinted that it may send a crew of astronauts on a mission to the moon in the future date. Beijing insists its space programme is peaceful, but the US Defense Department has warned China's increasing space exploration efforts may prevent China's adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.