China launched a lander and rover that could be the first to land on the far side of the moon, a mission that would make it a player in the competitive field of space exploration.
The Chang’e-4 mission blasted off on Saturday morning local time. The spacecraft isn’t expected to land until January.
The far side of the moon, also called the dark side, is largely unexplored. According to NASA, the moon rotates on its axis at about the same rate that it takes to complete one orbit around the Earth, meaning people here on Earth only see the “face” of the moon.
The Chang’e-4 rover is expected to explore a portion of the South Pole-Aitken Basin, about 1,550 miles in diameter and about 5 miles deep, an area NASA considers to be the oldest and largest impact basin on the moon. The area is considered to have different minerals than other parts of the moon, which may have originated inside the moon.
Plans for the Chinese mission include gathering moon rock and soil from the region, which past NASA studies have shown to have a thicker crust than the face.
The mission is trickier than usual because there is no direct line between the lander and Earth. Chinese astronomers plan to send data back via Queqiao, a satellite China launched earlier this year to relay the information, BBC reports.
The United States and Russia were early explorers of the moon, though in recent years more countries and even private entities have entered the field. SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk, has announced lofty plans to send passengers on a trip around the moon, though hasn’t released specific details.