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China lunar rover touches down on far side of the moon

The first image of the moon's far side taken after the Chang'e 4 probe landed. Photo: AP

In a historic first, China has landed a rover on the far side of the moon, state media announced on Thursday, a huge milestone for the nation as it attempts to position itself as a leading space power.

China's National Space Administration landed the craft, officially named Chang'e 4, at 10:26 am Beijing time in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, the moon's largest and oldest impact crater, China Central Television reported.

It made its final descent from an elliptical orbit 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) above the moon's surface, making a "smooth" and "precise" landing, according to the general designer of Chang'e 4, Sun Zezhou, who added that the probe pulled off a "bull's-eye."

State media reported that the rover, which China has named Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit-2, transmitted back the world's first close-range image of the far side of the moon. The rover was named in a global poll in August. In Chinese foklore, Yutu is the white pet rabbit of Chang'e, the moon goddess after which the Chinese lunar mission is named, state media Xinhua reported.

Several hours after touchdown, the rover separated from the lander on the moon's surface and began its mission.

A photo taken at 11:40 am 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 lunar explorer.

Instruments onboard the Chang'e lander and rover will aim to study the local lunar geology, probe the moon's interior, and analyze the solar wind – a stream of high-energy particles that flow from the sun. Onboard experiments will also test how well plants grow in the weak lunar gravity.

One challenge of sending a probe to the moon's far side is communicating with it from Earth, so China launched a relay satellite in May to enable Chang'e 4 to send back information.

The Aitken basin, where Chang'e 4 has landed, is the moon's largest and oldest impact crater. Dating when the basin was created could help narrow down the window for a period of heavy bombardment of the moon and inner planets by asteroids left over from the formation of the solar system. Intriguingly, the timing of the heavy bombardment closely coincides with when life appeared on Earth and scientists are trying to work out the exact sequence and whether the bombardment by asteroids might have created the conditions for life.

"Understanding the intensity and timing of the bombardment is important as … that was going on about the same time that life appeared on Earth," said Ian Crawford, professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck University, London. "The Earth has lost its record of that very early time."

Exploring the cosmos from that far side of the moon, which people cannot see from Earth, could eventually help scientists learn more about the early days of the solar system and maybe even the birth of the universe's first stars.

Scientists are still trying to understand why there are differences between the two faces of the moon, but think that these probably date back to the moon's origin.

Three nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union and more recently China — all have sent spacecraft to the side of the moon that faces Earth, but this landing is the first on the far side. That side has been observed many times from lunar orbit, but never up close.

The mission highlights China's growing ambitions to rival the United States, Russia and Europe in space, and more broadly, to cement its position as a regional and global power.

"The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger," Chinese President Xi Jinping said after becoming the country's leader in 2013.

"On the whole, China's space technology still lags behind the West, but with the landing on the far side of the moon, we have raced to the front," said Hou Xiyun, a professor at Nanjing University's school of astronomy and space science.

He added that China has Mars, Jupiter and asteroids in its sights: "There's no doubt that our nation will go farther and farther."

The landing was "a big deal" because it used an engineering technique of the spacecraft itself choosing a safe place to touch down in treacherous terrain, something called autonomous hazard avoidance, said Purdue University lunar and planetary scientist Jay Melosh.

He recalled mentioning the idea of such a technique for an unfunded NASA lunar mission about eight years ago, only to be told it was not doable at the time.

"The moon is more challenging to land on than Mars," Melosh said. "On Mars, you can pick out smooth areas."

China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, following Russia and the United States. It has put two 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.

In the next phase of China's lunar program, the Chang'e 5 and 6 missions will attempt to collect lunar samples and return them to Earth. Chang'e 5 is due to launch in December next year.

China also is aiming to have a fully operational permanent space station by 2022, as the future of the International Space Station remains in doubt due to uncertain funding and complicated politics.

Although the Chinese government has long stressed its "peaceful motives" in space exploration, Washington increasingly views China -- along with Russia -- as a potential threat, accusing Beijing of working to bring new weapons into space and prompting President Donald Trump to announce the establishment of a US Space Force by 2020.

The US Congress has barred NASA from working with China due to national security concerns.

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