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China launches historic mission to the moon's far side

If successful, the lunar foray will be a major boost for the Chinese space program.

China launched the world's first mission to the far side of the moon today.

The Chang'e 4 robotic spacecraft lifted off Friday at around 1:23 p.m. ET (2:23 a.m. in China, on Saturday, Dec. 8), the New York Times reported.

The spacecraft launched atop a Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Plans call for Chang'e 4, which carries both a lander and a lunar rover, to touch down on the moon in early January.

"Anything we land on the moon is significant, but this one is especially so," David Paige, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said of the mission.

It is a successor to China's Chang'e 3 mission, which successfully placed a lander and rover on the moon's Earth-facing side in 2013.

Chang'e 4's planned landing site lies within the South Pole-Aitken basin. The sprawling basin, which is 8 miles deep and more than 1,500 miles across, is one of the moon's largest and oldest impact craters.

"This crater has the potential to tell us something about the creation of the Earth and moon system — how the moon formed, as well as how the early solar system evolved," Paige said. "Understanding exactly when this basin formed and how it relates to other lunar impact basins is key."

The lander and rover are each equipped with cameras. The rover also sports a ground-penetrating radar instrument designed to help scientists gain an understanding of the moon’s geological history as well as a spectrometer to study its chemical composition.

Chang’e 4 won't be returning any moon rocks to Earth, but a successor mission planned for 2019, Chang'e 5, will. This would be the first time that materials from the moon have been brought back to Earth since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 mission in 1976.

Image: China moon rover hit by mechanical abnormality
This TV grab taken by CCTV (China Central Television) on Dec. 15, 2013, shows China's first moon rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, taken by the camera on the Chang'e 3 moon lander.Zhang bo / Zhang bo - Imaginechina file

"These missions are taking place in rapid succession, and that also demonstrates the resolve of this program to move forward toward the eventual goal of putting Chinese astronauts on the lunar surface," Bradley Jolliff, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, told NBC News MACH in an email.

China has also announced plans to launch a rover to Mars in 2020, as well as additional crewed missions to low-Earth orbit.

China had been constructing its own space station, Tiangong-2. But a rocket glitch in July 2017 derailed the effort, and China is now planning to de-orbit the 8.6-ton space lab next summer, Space News reported. In April, China's defunct Tiangong-1 space station plummeted through Earth's atmosphere and burned up over the Pacific Ocean.

China, the U.S. and Russia are the only nations to have successfully landed spacecraft on the moon.

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