BEIJING—China's burgeoning space program achieved a first today: a landing on the so-called “dark” side of the moon.
Three nations—the United States, the former Soviet Union, and more recently China—have sent spacecraft to the near side of the moon, which faces Earth, but this landing is the first-ever on the far side.
The China National Space Administration said the 10:26 a.m. touchdown of the Chang'e 4 craft has “opened up a new chapter in human lunar exploration.”
A photo taken at 11:40 a.m. 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.
Its name comes from that of a Chinese goddess who, according to legend, has lived on the moon for millennia.
The landing highlights China's growing ambitions to rival the U.S., Russia, and Europe in space, and more broadly, to cement the nation's position as a regional and global power.
“The space dream is part of the dream to make China stronger,” President Xi Jinping said in 2013, shortly after becoming China's leader.
In year-end wrap-ups, Chinese media and officials hailed the Dec. 8 launch of Chang'e 4 as one of the nation's major achievements in 2018.
Today's landing was announced to the public by state broadcaster CCTV at the top of the noon news.
“On the whole, China's space technology still lags behind the West,” said Hou Xiyun, a professor at Nanjing University's school of astronomy and space science.
“But with the landing on the far side of the moon, we have raced to the front.”
He added that China has Mars, Jupiter, and asteroids in its sights.
“There's no doubt that our nation will go farther and farther,” Hou said.
In 2013, Chang'e 3, the predecessor craft to the current mission, made the first moon landing since the former Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976.
The U.S. is the only country that successfully has sent a person to the moon, though China is considering a crewed mission, too.
For now, it plans to send a Chang'e 5 probe to the moon next year and have it return to Earth with samples—also not done since the Soviet mission in 1976.
The moon's far side isn't always dark but sometimes is called the dark side because it faces away from Earth and is relatively unknown.
It has a different composition than the near side, where previous missions have landed.
Chang'e 4, a combined lander and rover, will make astronomical observations and probe the structure and mineral composition of the terrain above and below the surface.
“The far side of the moon is a rare quiet place that is free from interference from radio signals from Earth,” mission spokesman Yu Guobin said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
“This probe can fill the gap of low-frequency observation in radio astronomy and will provide important information for studying the origin of stars and nebula evolution.”
One challenge of operating on the far side of the moon is communicating with Earth. China launched a relay satellite in May so Chang'e 4 can send back information.
China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming only the third country to do so after Russia and the U.S.
It has put a pair of 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.