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China launched a ground-break­ing mis­sion last 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. 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 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. 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 im­por­tant ar­eas of lu­nar ex­plo­ration.

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 also a lan­der-rover com­bi­na­tion and will ex­plore both above and be­low the lu­nar sur­face af­ter ar­riv­ing at the South PoleAitken 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

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 60-ton 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 co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia and Euro­pean na­tions, although it was ex­cluded from the 420-ton In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, mainly due to U.S. leg­is­la­tion bar­ring such co­op­er­a­tion 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.

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