China could be the first nation to visit the dark side of the Moon, with the country's state media announcing plans today to send a probe to the satellite's unexplored hemisphere in 2018. A spacecraft named Chang'e-4 will attempt the mission, said Liu Jizhong, head of China's lunar exploration center, which will be the first of its kind in history. The far hemisphere of the Moon (which is "dark" in the sense of unexplored, rather than lacking light), was unobserved until 1959 when a Soviet Union probe photographed it.
"The Chang’e-4’s lander and rover will make a soft landing on the back side of the moon, and will carry out in-place and patrolling surveys," Liu is reported as saying by Agence France-Presse. "The implementation of the Chang’e-4 mission has helped our country make the leap from following to leading in the field of lunar exploration."
"An important manifestation of overall national strength."
According to Liu, Chang'e-4's goals will include studying geological conditions on the Moon's surface, but advancing China's space program is an important goal in and of itself. According to AFP, Chinese state media quoted science official Qian Yan as saying that space flight is "an important manifestation of overall national strength." And that every successful mission "greatly stimulated the public’s … pride in the achievements of the motherland’s development."
The solar-powered Jade Rabbit rover makes tracks on the Moon. (Image credit: CSNA)
China landed its first spacecraft, Chang'e-3, on the near side of the Moon in 2013, with its Jade Rabbit rover exploring the lunar surface until February 2014. (The rover's instruments were functional, but it was physically immobilized from this point.) That same year, it successfully launched an unmanned probe on a mission to fly around the Moon and back to Earth. The spacecraft set to visit Earth's satellite in 2018 is apparently similar in design to Chang'e-3, but able to carry a larger payload.