China launched a ground-breaking mission Saturday to land a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon.
The launch showed China’s growing ambitions as a space power to rival the US, Russia and the European Union.
A Long March 3B rocket carrying a lunar probe blasted off at 2:23 a.m. from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province in southwestern China, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
With its Chang’e 4 mission, China hopes to be the first country to make a soft landing, which is a touchdown of a spacecraft during which no serious damage is incurred.
The moon’s far side faces away from Earth and remains relatively unknown. It has a different composition than sites on the near side, where previous missions have landed.
If successful, the mission would propel the Chinese space program to a leading position in one of the most sensational sides of selenology.
China landed its Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” rover on the moon five years ago and plans to send its Chang’e 5 probe there next year and have it return to Earth with samples—the first time that will have been done since 1976. A crewed lunar mission is also under consideration.
Photo illustration of a plant growing on the moon.
China wants to know if plants will grow on the far side of the moon
Chang’e 4 is a lander-rover combination and will explore both above and below the lunar surface.
It may carry plant seeds and silkworm eggs, according to Xinhua.
China’s space program has benefited from cooperation with Russia and European nations, although it was excluded from the 420-ton International Space Station, mainly due to US legislation barring such cooperation amid concerns over its strong military connections.
China’s program also suffered a setback last year with the failed launch of its Long March 5 rocket.
Chang’e is the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology.