A Chinese probe carrying samples from the surface of the Moon successfully docked today with a spacecraft orbiting near the lunar star, in another space first for the nation, state media reported.

The manoeuvre was part of the ambitious Chang'e-5 mission - named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess - to bring back the first lunar samples to Earth in four decades.

The cargo capsule landed on the surface of the Moon on Tuesday and lifted off on Thursday, carrying lunar rocks and soil.

It docked with the orbiter this morning, the official Xinhua news agency said, citing the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

The capsule transferred the Moon samples to the orbiter, which will separate and return to Earth.

The Xinhua news agency said it was China's first "rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit".

The cargo capsule's departure from the lunar surface on Thursday was also the first lift-off of a Chinese craft from an extraterrestrial body.

An illustration of the ascender of China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe docking with the orbiter

China is looking to catch up with the United States and Russia after taking decades to match their achievements, and has poured billions into its military-run space programme.

Its space agency said previously that "before lift-off, the Chinese flag was raised on the Moon's surface".

Scientists hope the samples from Chang'e-5 will help them learn more about the Moon's origins and volcanic activity on its surface.

If the return journey is successful, China will become only the third country to have retrieved samples from the Moon, following the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.