BEIJING (Reuters) – China plans to launch an unmanned probe to the moon early this week to bring back lunar rocks in the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from Earth’s natural satellite since the 1970s. Children play with models of rockets at the reception desk of a hotel in Longlou town, Wenchang, Hainan province, China November 22, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to have retrieved lunar samples, following the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago. Here is a timeline of key moments in Chinese space exploration: July 19, 1964: China took its first official step into space, launching and recovering an experimental biological rocket carrying white mice. April 24, 1970: The first Chinese artificial satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1, was launched at the Jiuquan launch centre in the northwestern province of Gansu. That made China the fifth country to send satellites into orbit following the Soviet Union, the United States, France and Japan. Nov. 26, 1975: China’s first recoverable satellite was successfully launched and returned to Earth. Nov. 20, 1999: China successfully launched its first unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 1, at the Jiuquan launch centre. The country launched another three unmanned spaceships in 2001 and 2002 in preparation for a manned spacecraft. Oct. 15, 2003: China became the third country after the United States and Russia to send a man into space with its own rocket. Astronaut Yang Liwei spent about 21 hours in space aboard the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft. Oct. 12, 2005: The country sent two men on a five-day flight on its Shenzhou VI craft. Nov. 5, 2007: China’s first lunar orbiter, Chang’e 1, entered the moon’s orbit 12 days after takeoff. Sept. 25, 2008: China’s third manned rocket, Shenzhou VII, was launched into space where an astronaut clambered out of the spacecraft and walked in space. Slideshow ( 4 images ) Oct. 1, 2010: China’s second lunar exploration probe blasted off from a remote corner of the southwestern province of Sichuan. Sept. 29, 2011: The Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace 1”， China’s first space lab, was launched to carry out docking and orbit experiments. Nov. 3, 2011: China successfully carried out its first docking exercise between two unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong 1 module, a key test to securing a long-term manned presence in space. Dec. 14, 2013: China landed an unmanned spacecraft on the moon in the first such “soft-landing” since 1976, joining the United States and the former Soviet Union in managing to accomplish the feat. Sept. 15, 2016：China launched its second experimental space laboratory, the Tiangong 2, part of a broader plan to have a permanent manned space station in service around 2022. Jan. 3, 2019: The Chang’e-4 lunar probe, launched in December, successfully touched down on the far side of the moon. Previous spacecraft have seen the far side, but none have landed on it. June 23, 2020: China successfully put into orbit its final Beidou satellite, completing a navigation network years in the making and setting the stage to challenge the U.S.-owned Global Positioning System (GPS). July 23, 2020: China launched an unmanned probe to Mars in its first independent mission to another planet.