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China aims to land Chang'e-4 probe on far side of moon before 2020

China's previous lunar rover, Yutu, landed in 2013 and was photographed by the Chang'e 3 lander as it drove away. Photo: Chinese Academy of Sciences

China is planning to be the first country to land a lunar probe on the far side of the moon, a Chinese lunar probe scientist said on Tuesday.

The mission will be carried out by Chang'e-4, a backup probe for Chang'e-3, and is slated to be launched before 2020, said Zou Yongliao from the moon exploration department under the Chinese Academy of Sciences at a deep-space exploration forum on Tuesday.

"China will be the first to complete the task if it is successful," Zou said.

Zou said that government organs have ordered experts to assess the plan over the past 12 plus months.

He stressed that the moon's hidden side is attractive to scientists due to the absence of electromagnetic waves, making it an ideal site for low-frequency radio research.

The far side of the moon, or "dark side of the moon" as it is more commonly called, is never visible to Earth because of gravitational forces

"If we can place a frequency spectrograph on the far side, we can fill a void," Zou said.

China's ambitious space program also includes a permanent space station and manned flights to the moon and Mars.

Zou said that Chang'e-4 is very similar to Chang'e-3 in structure but can handle more payload. It will be used to study the geological conditions of the dark side of the moon.

China plans to launch its Chang'e-5 lunar probe around 2017 to finish the last chapter in China's three-step moon exploration program.

Li Chunlai, one of the main designers of the lunar probe ground application system, said that Chang'e-5 will achieve several breakthroughs, including automatic sampling, ascending from the moon without a launch site and an unmanned docking 400,000 kilometers above the lunar surface.

Chang'e 5 will collect a rock sample and launch it back up to an orbiter, in order to bring it back to Earth.

Chang'e-5 will also have a new launch site and launch rockets, said Li.

Since 2007, the country's lunar program has already placed two probes in the moon's orbit and one lander on its surface. Putting a rover on the far side could provide new data on the moon's geologic history — and demonstrate the China National Space Administration (CNSA)'s growing expertise in and recent dominance of lunar exploration.

Though China began launching satellites and conducting other activities in space all the way back in the 1970s, the country's space agency has made its biggest strides since 2000, becoming the third nation to send astronauts into space in 2003. Since then, the CNSA has focused on a destination that NASA and other space agencies have mostly overlooked as of late: the moon.

In 2007, the CNSA sent its first spacecraft — named Chang'e 1, after the Chinese goddess of the moon — into lunar orbit. That was followed by the orbiter Chang'e 2 in 2010 and the lander Chang'e 3 in 2013, the latter of which brought a small rover (called Yutu) to the moon, and became the first craft to make a soft-landing there since the 1970s.

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