China has planted its flag on the moon during a space expedition to collect lunar rocks.

The communist nation is the second country after the USA to deposit its national flag on the moon’s airless atmosphere.

American astronaut Buzz Aldrin planted the first flag during the manned Apollo 11 mission in 1969 and the US left five more flags there in subsequent missions until 1972.

China’s mission was not manned by astronauts so the distinctive red flag was unfurled by the Chang’e-5 lander vehicle before taking off to return to earth.

The state-run Global Times newspaper said the milestone was a reminder of the “excitement and inspiration” felt during the US Apollo missions.

China’s Chang’e 5 space module left the moon this week after completing its mission to gather 2kg of rock lunar samples.

It is the first time in 44 years moon samples have been brought back to earth and researchers hope it will provide new information about the volcanic activity of the moon.

China’s ambitious space program also includes building its own space station by 2022 and sending an exploration mission to Jupiter by 2029.

The space module landed on the moon on Tuesday and started to scoop up rock samples on Wednesday, state media reported.

The lander is expected to connect with a spacecraft which will then take it out of the moon’s orbit and return it to earth in the next few days.

The only other countries to have collected moon rocks are the United States and the Soviet Union.

The US Apollo missions brought back about 380kg of lunar rock.

The Soviet Union collected 300g.

Chang’e 5, named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, was launched in late November from the space port in Wenchang on the southern Chinese island of Hainan.

Chinese probes have already landed successfully on the moon twice before.