China hopes to become the first country to land a spacecraft on the dark side of the Moon, aiming to achieve so by 2018.
Images of the dark side of the Moon, which is never visible from Earth, have been previously acquired by orbiting spacecraft but there has been no direct surface exploration so far.
China hopes that by achieving such a feat, it would move from only following in the footsteps of the USA and Russia, to becoming a leader in lunar exploration.
The Chang’e-4 probe, to be launched in 2018, will be based on the design of the current Chang’e-3 but able to deliver a larger payload. It will carry a rover that will study geological conditions on the far side of the Moon, according to China’s lunar exploration chief Liu Jizhong.
China’s landing on the Moon in 2013 with the Chang’e-3 spacecraft and its Yutu rover, marked the first occasion since 1976 that a man-made spacecraft soft-landed on the lunar surface.
The prospective mission is part of China’s ambitious space programme that hopes to have a permanent orbiting station similar to Russian Mir in space by 2020 and land humans on the Moon in the next decade.
Although China insists its space activities don’t have other than peaceful purposes, the US Defense Department has previously raised concerns it could enable the communist country to develop capabilities designed to prevent its enemies from using space-based assets during a crisis.
In March, the Chinese government said it would open up its lunar exploration programme to private companies rather than simply relying on the state-owned sector as before, hoping to boost technological breakthroughs.