By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon on Thursday, China's space agency said, hailing the event as a historic first and a major achievement for the country's space program.
The Chang'e-4 lunar probe, launched in December, made the "soft landing" at 0226 GMT and transmitted the first-ever "close range" image of the far side of the moon, the China National Space Administration said.
The moon is tidally locked to Earth, rotating at the same rate as it orbits our planet, so most of the far side - or "dark side" - is never visible to us. Previous spacecraft have seen the far side, but none has landed on it.
The landing "lifted the mysterious veil" of the far side of the moon and "opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration", the agency said in a statement on its website, which included a wide-angle color picture of a crater from the moon's surface.
The probe, which has a lander and a rover, touched down at a targeted area near the moon's south pole in the Von Karman Crater after entering the moon's orbit in mid-December.
The tasks of the Chang'e-4 include astronomical observation, surveying the moon's terrain, landform and mineral makeup, and measuring the neutron radiation and neutral atoms to study the environment of its far side.
The control center in Beijing will decide when to let the rover separate from the lander, state news agency Xinhua said.
"It's an important milestone for China's space exploration," Wu Weiren, chief designer of the lunar exploration program, said, according to Xinhua.
The probe also took six live species - cotton, rapeseed, potato, arabidopsis, fruit fly and yeast - to the lifeless environment to form a mini biosphere, Xinhua said.
A MAJOR SPACE POWER
The landing is the latest step for China in its race to catch up with Russia and the United States and become a major space power by 2030. Beijing plans to launch construction of its own manned space station next year.
While China has insisted its ambitions are purely peaceful, the U.S. Defense Department has accused it of pursuing activities aiming to prevent other nations from using space-based assets during a crisis.
Besides its civilian ambitions, China has tested anti-satellite missiles and the U.S. Congress has banned NASA from two-way cooperation with its Chinese counterpart over security concerns.
As competition accelerates in space, U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to create a new "Space Force" by 2020, as the sixth branch of the military.
But the private space race is also heating up, as numerous companies aim to commercialize space travel, such as California-based SpaceX, which has upended the industry with its low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets.
The United States is the only country to have landed humans on the moon, and Trump said in 2017 he wanted to return astronauts to the lunar surface to build a foundation for an eventual Mars mission.
NASA administrators have said people could be put on Mars by as soon as the mid-2030s, with the agency having landed eight spacecraft there, the most recent in November.
As soon as 2022, NASA expects to begin building a new space station laboratory to orbit the moon, as a pit stop for missions to distant parts of the solar system.
In 2003, China became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket after the former Soviet Union and the United States, and in 2017 it said it was preparing to send a person to the moon.
China completed its first lunar "soft landing" in 2013, but its "Jade Rabbit" rover began malfunctioning after several weeks.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Tait and Clarence Fernandez)