A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon on Thursday, in a global first that boosts Beijing’s ambitions to become a space superpower.
The Chang’e-4 probe touched down and sent a photo of the so-called “dark side” of the moon to the Queqiao satellite, which will relay communications to controllers on Earth, China’s national space agency said on its website.
Beijing is pouring billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022, and of eventually sending humans to the moon.
China launched the Chang’e-4 probe earlier this month, carried by a Long March-3B rocket.
It includes a lander and a rover to explore the surface of the moon.
Xinhua said the probe had entered an elliptical lunar orbit at 08.55 Beijing time, which brought it 15 kilometres away from the surface of the moon.
The Chang’e-4 first entered a lunar orbit on December 12.
The tasks of the Chang’e-4 include astronomical observation, surveying the moon’s terrain, landform and mineral composition, and measuring the neutron radiation and neutral atoms to study the environment on the far side of the moon.
China aims to catch up with Russia and the United States to become a major space power by 2030.
It is planning to launch construction of its own manned space station next year.
However, while China has insisted its ambitions are purely peaceful, the U.S. Defense Department has accused it of pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations from using space-based assets during a crisis.
This will be the primary form of communication between Earth and the spacecraft.
The probe and explorer will use Queqiao to get their findings back to China. As the landing is happening on the dark side of the moon it required its own satellite to be able to send information back.
China’s latest mission closely follows the touchdown of NASA’s InSight spacecraft on Mars, at a site less than 400 miles (640 kilometres) from the American rover Curiosity, the only other working robot on Mars.
The Chang’e-4 lunar probe mission—named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology—launched in December from the southwestern Xichang launch centre.
It is the second Chinese probe to land on the moon, following the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover mission in 2013.
Unlike the near side of the moon that offers many flat areas to touch down on, the far side is mountainous and rugged.
The moon is “tidally locked” to Earth in its rotation so the same side is always facing Earth.
Chang’e-4 is carrying six experiments from China and four from abroad, including low-frequency radio astronomical studies—aiming to take advantage of the lack of interference on the far side.
The rover will also conduct mineral and radiation tests, the China National Space Administration has said, according to state news agency Xinhua.
The pioneering landing demonstrates China’s growing ambitions to rival the US as a space power, with Beijing hoping to send another probe next year that will retrieve samples and bring them back to Earth.
It was not until 1959 that the Soviet Union captured the first images of the moon’s mysterious and heavily cratered “dark side”.
No lander or rover has ever previously touched the surface there, and it is no easy technological feat—China has been preparing for this moment for years.
A major challenge for such a mission was communicating with the robotic lander as there is no direct “line of sight” for signals to the far side of the moon.
As a solution, China in May blasted the Queqiao (“Magpie Bridge”) satellite into the moon’s orbit, positioning it so that it can relay data and commands between the lander and Earth.
In another extreme hurdle, during the lunar night—which lasts 14 Earth days—temperatures drop to as low as minus 173 degrees Celsius (minus 279 Fahrenheit).
During the lunar day, also lasting 14 Earth days, temperatures soar as high as 127 C (261 F).
The rover’s instruments have to withstand those fluctuations and it has to generate enough energy to sustain it during the long night.
Adding to the difficulties, Chang’e-4 was sent to the Aitken Basin in the lunar south pole region—known for its craggy and complex terrain—state media has said.
Yutu also conquered those challenges and, after initial setbacks, ultimately surveyed the moon’s surface for 31 months. Its success provided a major boost to China’s space programme.
Beijing is planning to send another lunar lander, Chang’e-5, later this year to collect samples and bring them back to Earth.
It is among a slew of ambitious Chinese targets, which include a reusable launcher by 2021, a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle, a moon base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover.