China’s burgeoning space program achieved a first on Thursday: a landing on the so-called dark side of the moon.
The United States, the then-Soviet Union and more recently China have all sent spacecraft to the near side of the moon, which faces Earth, but this is the first-ever landing on the other side.
The China National Space Administration said the 10:26 a.m. landing of the Chang’e 4 lunar explorer has “opened up a new chapter in human lunar exploration.”
A photo taken at 11:40 a.m. and sent back by Chang’e 4 shows a small crater and a barren surface that appears to be illuminated by a light from the spacecraft.
The landing highlights China’s growing ambitions to rival the U.S., Russia and Europe in space, and more broadly, to cement China’s position as a regional and global power.
The Chang’e 4’s launch on Dec. 8 was hailed as one of the nation’s major achievements in 2018, and state broadcaster China Central news channel announced Thursday’s landing to the public at the top of the noon news.
“The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger,” President Xi Jinping said as far back as 2013, shortly after taking office.
In 2013, Chang’e 3, the predecessor craft to the current mission, made the first moon landing since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. The United States is the only country that has successfully sent a person to the moon, though China is considering a crewed mission too.
For now, it plans to send its Chang’e 5 probe to the moon next year and have it return to Earth with samples — also not done since the Soviet mission in 1976.
The relatively unexplored far side of the moon has a different composition than the near side, where previous missions have landed.
Chang’e 4, a combined lander and rover, will make astronomical observations and probe the structure and mineral composition of the terrain above and below the surface.
“The far side of the moon is a rare quiet place that is free from interference from radio signals from Earth,” mission spokesman Yu Guobin said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “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 conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, only the third country to do so after Russia and the U.S. It has put a pair of space stations into orbit and plans to launch a Mars rover in the mid-2020s. Its space program suffered a rare setback last year with the failed launch of its Long March 5 rocket.