China’s new ground-breaking mission is aiming to land an unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. If successful, China would be the first country to land on the far side, also known as the dark side because it faces away from Earth. All previous attempts have landed on the near side.
According to the Twitter account of the country’s state-run Xinhua news agency, China launched its Chang’e 4 spacecraft from Xichang Satellite Launch Center early Saturday morning. The spacecraft was carried atop a Long March 3B rocket. It’s expected to land in early January after 26 days of flight.
The spacecraft also carries a new six-wheeled, solar-powered rover that will be used to study the interaction between solar winds and the moon surface. The composition of the Moon’s largest impact crater, called the Von Kármán crater, will be explored during the mission and a variety of experiments will be conducted. Scientists are also planning to explore whether there is water or other resources at the poles.
The overall design of the new rover is based on China’s last lunar rover, called Yutu (Jade Rabbit). That rover logged 972 days of service on the moon’s surface before it ceased operation in August 2016. Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar probe program, said of the new rover, “We worked hard to improve its reliability, conducting thousands of experiments to ensure its long-term operation, especially taking into consideration rocks, ravines and frictions on the Moon.”
Because the far side of the moon is free from interference from radio frequencies, the mission requires a relay satellite to transmit signals to the lander and the rover. That satellite, called the Queqiao satellite, was launched earlier this year.
China hopes to put a human on the Moon by the 2030s. The U.S. is currently the only country that has successfully landed astronauts on the Moon. Only 12 men, all Americans, have set foot on the Moon, most recently in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission.