A Chinese Long March 3C rocket launches Oct. 24, 2014, China's first robotic roundtrip mission to the moon from Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation/SpaceChina.com

GOLDEN, Colorado — A Chinese spacecraft service module has entered lunar orbit, months after being used in the country’s landmark test flight that sent a prototype sample-return capsule on a flight around the moon and returned it to Earth.

The service module from China’s circumlunar test flight arrived in orbit around the moon the week of Jan. 12, according to Chinese state media reports. The spacecraft is currently flying in an eight-hour orbit that carries it within 200 kilometers of the lunar surface at its closest point, and out to a range of 5,300 kilometers at its highest point.

Additional braking Jan. 12-13 enabled the module to enter a 127-minute orbit around the moon, according to chief engineer Zhou Jianlian of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.

Earlier reports noted that a camera system is onboard the service module, designed to assist in identifying future landing spots for the Chang’e 5 mission that will return lunar samples back to Earth in the 2017 time frame.

China’s test lunar orbiter launched Oct. 24, circling the moon during its eight-day mission. The service module ejected a return capsule on Nov. 1, with the capsule parachuting to Earth that same day.

After release of the capsule, the service module made its way to the Earth-moon Lagrangian (L2) position, completing three circles around that point prior to heading for lunar orbit.

“It was the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to reach the L2 point, and the service module completed three circles around the point, expanding probe missions,” said Zhao Wenbo, vice director of China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

According to ground controllers, the service module contains support systems that reportedly are all operating smoothly. The module now orbiting the moon is loaded with gear to collect further data useful in planning China’s Chang’e 5 lunar mission set for 2017, state broadcaster China Central Television said.

Chang’e 5 would be a robotic sample-return mission aimed at making a soft landing on the moon and then scooping up several pounds of lunar rocks and soil for the return trip to Earth.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...