China's Chang'e-4 spacecraft could land on the dark side of the moon as soon as tonight.
Though officials have remained tight-lipped about the exact landing date and time, astronomers estimate it will touch down on Thursday around 1:00 a.m. UT, or 9:00 a.m. Beijing time (8:00 p.m. ET Wednesday).
The space probe moved into position earlier this week, according to the official Xinhua news agency, and China’s Central Television later confirmed a January 3 touchdown.
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The Chang'e-4 (artist's impression pictured), entered lunar orbit earlier this week, and will soon be the first ever rover to land on the far side of the lunar surface. A lander will help guide the spacecraft to the dark side of the moon
The probe, the Chang'e-4, entered a planned orbit on Sunday 'to prepare for the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon', the news agency said, citing the China National Space Administration.
It didn't say when the landing would occur- but experts from the Smithsonian Institution, the American museums and research centres group, reported that the craft was expected to set down on the Von Kármán crater landing point between January 1 and 3, according to the South China Morning Post.
In an update on January 1, Caltech researcher YE Quanzhi tweeted that China's Central Television had confirmed the Jan 3 landing date, though without word on the exact time.
According to the SkyWatcher account, this could come around 9:00 a.m. Beijing Time (01:00 UT).
Chang'e-4 will target the South Pole-Aitken basin's Von Karman crater, the largest in the entire solar system at 15,000 miles (24,000km) across and eight miles deep.
The moon is tidally locked to Earth, rotating at the same rate that it orbits our planet, so the far side - or the 'dark side' - is never visible from Earth.
Previous spacecraft have seen the far side of the moon, but none has landed on it.
Chang'e-4 has been described as 'hugely ambitious' and heralded as a sign of China's growing intentions to rival the space exploration prowess of the US, Russia and the EU
China launched the Chang'e-4 probe earlier this month, carried by a Long March-3B rocket.
It includes a lander and a rover to explore the surface of the moon.
Xinhua said that the probe had entered an elliptical lunar orbit at 08.55 Beijing time, which brought it at its closest point just 15 kilometres away from the surface of the moon.
The Chang'e-4 first entered a lunar orbit on Dec. 12.
The tasks of the Chang'e-4 include astronomical observation, surveying the moon's terrain, landform and mineral composition, and measuring the neutron radiation and neutral atoms to study the environment on the far side of the moon.
China aims to catch up with Russia and the United States to become a major space power by 2030.
It is planning to launch construction of its own manned space station next year.
It will visit an unexplored region of the lunar surface called the South Pole-Aitken Basin (pictured), located in the southern hemisphere of the moon
However, while China has insisted its ambitions are purely peaceful, the U.S. Defense Department has accused it of pursuing activities aimed at preventing other nations from using space-based assets during a crisis.