Technology & Science

Chinese spacecraft makes 1st landing on moon's far side

A Chinese spacecraft on Thursday made the first-ever landing on the far side of the moon in the latest achievement for the country's growing space program.

Far side of the moon faces away from Earth and is relatively unexplored

This photo provided on Jan. 3 by China National Space Administration via Xinhua News Agency, shows an image taken by China's Chang'e-4 probe during its landing process. (China National Space Administration/Xinhua/Associated Press)

A Chinese spacecraft on Thursday made the first landing on the far side of the moon in the latest achievement for the country's growing space program.

The relatively unexplored far side of the moon faces away from Earth and is also known as the dark side, though it does receive sunlight.

A photo taken by the lunar explorer Chang'e 4 at 11:40 a.m. and published online by the official Xinhua News Agency shows a small crater and a barren surface that appears to be illuminated by a light from the probe.

Chang'e 4 had touched down on the surface at 10:26 a.m., the China National Space Administration said. The landing was announced by state broadcaster China Central Television at the top of its noon news broadcast.

The landing highlights China's growing ambitions as a space power to rival the U.S., Russia and Europe. In 2013, Chang'e 3, the predecessor craft to the current mission, made the first moon landing since the then-Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976. The United States is the only other country that has carried out moon landings.

"The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger," President Xi Jinping said in 2013, shortly after becoming China's leader.

In year-end wrap-ups, Chinese media and officials hailed the Dec. 8 launch of Chang'e 4 as one of the nation's major achievements in 2018. Thursday's landing was announced to the public by state broadcaster CCTV at the top of the noon news.

'We have raced to the front'

"On the whole, China's space technology still lags behind the West, but with the landing on the far side of the moon, we have raced to the front," said Hou Xiyun, a professor at Nanjing University's school of astronomy and space science.

He added that China has Mars, Jupiter and asteroids in its sights: "There's no doubt that our nation will go farther and farther."

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) made this artist's impression of the Chang'e-4 lunar rover available on Jan. 2. (China National Space Administration/EPA-EFE)

The work of Chang'e 4, which is carrying a rover, includes carrying out astronomical observations and probing the structure and mineral composition of the terrain.

"The far side of the moon is a rare quiet place that is free from interference of radio signals from Earth," mission spokesperson Yu Guobin said, according to Xinhua. "This probe can fill the gap of low-frequency observation in radio astronomy and will provide important information for studying the origin of stars and nebula evolution."

One challenge of operating on the far side of the moon is communicating with Earth. China launched a relay satellite in May so that Chang'e 4 can send back information.

China launched a communications relay satellite in May that would allow a rover to send images from the far side of the Moon. (AFP/Getty Images)

China plans to send its Chang'e 5 probe to the moon next year and have it return to Earth with samples — the first time that will have been done since the Soviet mission in 1976.

A Long March 3B rocket carrying Chang'e 4 blasted off on Dec. 8 from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southern China. Chang'e is the name of a Chinese goddess who, according to legend, has lived on the moon for millennia.