China rover blasts off for first landing on moon's 'dark side'

BEIJING • China has launched a rover destined to land on the far side of the moon, a global first that would boost Beijing’s ambitions to become a space superpower, state media said.

The Chang’e-4 lunar probe mission – named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology – launched on a Long March 3B rocket from the south-western Xichang launch centre at 2.23am yesterday, said Xinhua news agency.

The blast-off marked the start of a long journey to the far side of the moon for the Chang’e-4 mission, expected to land around New Year’s Day to carry out experiments and survey the untrodden terrain.

“Chang’e-4 is humanity’s first probe to land on and explore the far side of the moon,” said the mission’s chief commander He Rongwei of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the main state-owned space contractor.

“This mission is also the most meaningful deep space exploration research project in the world in 2018.”

Unlike the near side of the moon that is “tidally locked”, always faces the earth and offers many flat areas to touch down on, the far side is mountainous and rugged.

It was not until 1959 that the Soviet Union captured the first images of the heavily cratered surface, uncloaking some of the mystery of the moon’s “dark side”.

No lander or rover has ever touched the surface there, positioning China as the first nation to explore the area.

“China over the past 10 or 20 years has been systematically ticking off the various firsts that America and the Soviet Union did in the 1960s and 1970s in space exploration,” said Dr Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. “This is one of the first times they’ve done something that no one else has done before.”

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE