In what AFP says will be "a first for humanity," China will be landing a probe on the so-called "dark side of the moon" two years earlier than planned, per state media. Named after the mythological Chinese moon goddess, Chang'e 4 will touch down in 2018 instead of the earlier mark of 2020. "The Chang'e 4's lander and rover will make a soft landing on the back side of the moon, and will carry out in-place and patrolling surveys," China's head of lunar exploration, Liu Jizhong, said late last week, per the Xinhua news agency. Xinhua adds that the probe will assess "geological conditions" on the moon's more mysterious side. In some science circles, the full geek-out over the announcement has begun. "There has been no surface exploration of the far side," Clive Neal, head of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, tells AFP. "I am sure the international lunar science community will be very excited about this mission. I know I am."
What makes the planned expedition so dramatic is that a) it's never been done before, and b) no one knows too much about what goes on on the other side of the moon, as its far hemisphere always faces away from Earth (though it has been photographed), AFP notes. "The environment and other conditions on the far side of the moon remain unknown, and the landscape there is also very complicated," Liu says, per CCTV. "We have ... made some changes accordingly in the probe design." China's first lunar landing took place in 2013 when the space probe Chang'e 3 came down on the moon's surface, decades after those of the US and the Soviet Union had also done so. This latest move would give the Chinese a front-of-the-pack position. "The implementation of the Chang'e 4 mission has helped our country make the leap from following to leading," Liu says. (Meanwhile, the Jade Rabbit rover has made a big find on the moon.)