Chinese spacecraft launches for historic landing on far side of the moon

China has launched a groundbreaking mission Saturday to land a spacecraft on the largely unexplored far side of the moon, demonstrating its growing ambitions as a space power to rival Russia, the European Union and the U.S.

Chang'e 4 mission blasted off Saturday, aiming to become 1st lander-rover to explore moon's far side

Chang'e 4 rover and lander models produced by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation on display on the first day of the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in November. They blasted off Saturday for the first mission to land on the dark side of the moon. (Aleksandar Plavevski/EPA-EFE)

China has launched a groundbreaking mission Saturday to land a spacecraft on the largely unexplored far side of the moon, demonstrating its growing ambitions as a space power to rival Russia, the European Union and the U.S.

A Long March 3B rocket carrying a lunar probe blasted off at 2:23 a.m. Saturday local time from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre 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 landing of a spacecraft during which no serious damage is incurred. The moon's far side is also known as the dark side because it faces away from Earth and remains comparatively unknown, with 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 important areas of lunar exploration.

China's first moon rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, explored the side of the moon facing Earth in 2013. (Xinhua/Associated Press)

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.

Chang'e 4 is a lander-rover combination and will explore both above and below the lunar surface after arriving at the South Pole-Aitken Basin's Von Karman crater following a 27-day journey.

It will also perform radio-astronomical studies that, because the far side always faces away from Earth, will be "free from interference from our planet's ionosphere, human-made radio frequencies and auroral radiation noise," space industry expert Leonard David wrote on the website Space.com.

Plant seeds, silkworm eggs may be aboard

It may also carry plant seeds and silkworm eggs, according to Xinhua.

Chang'e is the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology.

China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, making it only the third country after Russia and the U.S. to do so. It has put a pair of space stations into orbit, one of which is still operating as a precursor to a more than 54-tonne station that is due to come online in 2022. The launch of a Mars rover is planned for the mid-2020s.

To facilitate communication between controllers on Earth and the Chang'e 4 mission, China in May launched a relay satellite named Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, after an ancient Chinese folk tale.

China's space program has benefited from co-operation with Russia and European nations, although it was excluded from the 380-tonne International Space Station, mainly due to U.S. legislation barring such co-operation amid concerns over its strong military connections. Its program also suffered a rare setback last year with the failed launch of its Long March 5 rocket.

China's latest mission closely follows the touchdown of NASA's InSight spacecraft on Mars on Monday, at a site less than 640 kilometres from the American rover Curiosity, the only other working robot on Mars.