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Chang'e-4 launch
A Chinese Long March 3B rocket lifts off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, sending the Chang’e-4 probe into space. (CASC via Weibo)

China’s space effort launched its most ambitious robotic lunar mission to date, taking aim at a crater near the south pole on the moon’s far side.

The Chang’e-4 combination lander and rover were sent into space atop a Long March 3B rocket at 2:22 a.m. local time Saturday (10:22 a.m. PT Friday) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Sichuan Province, according to Sina Tech and other Chinese sources.

Chang’e-4’s flight plan calls for the probe to trace a looping series of orbits for 26 days or so, eventually putting it into position for a landing in Von Karman Crater, part of the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

It’s the type of crater that just might have frozen water mixed in with soil, potentially providing resources for lunar settlement.

Analyzing the crater’s surface composition is one of the primary tasks for the mission, part of a series carried out by a succession of Chang’e probes. “Chang’e” takes its name from the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology.

Chang’e-4 comes five years after China sent Chang’e-3 lander to the moon’s far side. That probe, similar in design to Change-4, deployed a lunar rover (nicknamed Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit”) for a months-long survey.

This May, China sent a satellite called Queqiao (“Magpie Bridge”) to a gravitational balance point about 33,000 miles beyond the moon to relay data between Earth and Chang’e-4’s landing site.

In addition to studying Von Karman Crater’s surface with spectrometers and ground-penetrating radar, Chang’e-4 will measure the solar wind, make low-frequency radio astronomy observations and monitor cosmic rays from a side of the moon that doesn’t experience earthly interference. A couple of the probe’s scientific instruments were contributed by teams from Germany and Sweden.

Months before launch, China’s Xinhua news agency reported that Chang’e-4 might also be carrying a “lunar mini-biosphere” containing potato seeds and mustard seeds as well as silkworm eggs.

Chang'e-4 rover
An artist’s conception shows the Chang’e-4 rover on the lunar surface. (China Daily / Xinhua Illustration)

Because the moon is tidally locked with Earth, it presents only one side to Earth’s view, with the other side hidden behind. Although the far side is hidden from our sight, it’s not exactly luna incognita: The territory has been mapped extensively by a host of robotic missions, plus the crewed Apollo missions.

Chang’e-4 would mark the first soft landing on the moon’s far side, following crash landings of probes such as NASA’s twin Grail spacecraft.

There’s more to come: Next year, China is due to launch its Chang’e-5 mission to collect a 4.4-pound (2-kilogram) sample of lunar soil from the Oceanus Procellarum region and return it to Earth.

Chinese space officials have discussed sending crewed missions to the moon in the 2020s or 2030s, and potentially building an outpost near the lunar south pole.

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