TAIPEI, Taiwan (NEWSnet/AP) — China launched a lunar probe Friday to land on the far side of the moon; and return with samples that could provide insights into differences among the lunar surface.

It is the latest advance in China’s increasingly sophisticated space exploration program.

China also has a three-member crew on its own orbiting space station and aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2030. Three Chinese lunar probe missions are planned over the next four years.

Angled away from exposure to Earth and other interference, the moon’s far side is ideal for radio astronomy and other scientific work. Because the far side never faces Earth, a relay satellite is needed to maintain communications.

The rocket carrying the Chang’e-6 lunar probe — named after the Chinese mythical moon goddess — lifted off Friday at 5:27 p.m. as planned from the Wenchang launch center on the island province of Hainan. About 35 minutes later it separated entirely from the massive Long March-5 rocket — China's largest — that had slung it into space, as technicians monitoring the launch from ground control smiled and applauded.

Huge numbers of people crowded Hainan's beaches to view the launch, which happened in the middle of China’s five-day May Day holiday. The launch also was televised live by state broadcaster CCTV.

After orbiting the moon to reduce speed, the lander will separate from the spacecraft and within 48 hours of setting down it will begin drilling into the lunar surface and scooping up samples with its robotic arm. With the samples sealed in a container, it will then reconnect with the returner for the trip back to Earth.

The entire mission is set to last 53 days.

China returned samples from the moon's near side in 2020, the first time anyone has done so since the U.S. Apollo program that ended in the 1970s. Analysis of the samples found they contained water in tiny beads embedded in lunar dirt.

Also in the past week, three Chinese astronauts returned home from a six-month mission on the country's orbiting space station after the arrival of its replacement crew. China built its own space station, as it was excluded from the International Space Station mission.

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