China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon for the first time on January 3rd, returning the first images ever seen from the surface of that alien landscape. After touching down on the lunar surface, the Chang’e 4 space probe released a rover which began to scurry across the barren crust.
Chang-e 4 orbited the Moon for 20 days before mission controllers set the vehicle down on the lunar surface. Touchdown took place near the south pole of the Moon, at the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) Basin.
“Landing on the far side of the moon is more risky than landing on the near side. The rugged terrain on the far side has raised many problems. But solving those problems might help lay the foundation for future space exploration. High-precision landing is a necessity for further exploring the moon and asteroids. We hope to be able to reach the whole moon and even the whole solar system,” said Sun Zezhou, chief designer of the Chang’e-4 spacecraft.
The Moon blocks any signals being sent from spacecraft to the Earth, so the mission included an orbiter, named Queqiao, which relayed signals from the lander back home.
The side of the Moon facing the Earth is cratered, but it is still relatively smooth compared to the far side of the lunar surface. Astronomers also believe the crust on the far side of the Moon is thicker than the side we see, although the reason for that remains a mystery.
Although many people refer to the far side of the Moon as the “dark side,” it receives the same amount of sunlight as the half we see from our home planet. The Moon is caught in a gravitational lock with the Earth, but during the time when it is between the Earth and the Sun, the far side of the Moon is illuminated by our parent star.
The Chang-e project, which started in 2004, is China’s program to explore the Moon. Named after a Chinese goddess of the Moon, the series of missions include a future trip to return material from the lunar surface. The last mission, Chang-e 3, marked the first time the Chinese completed a soft landing on our planetary companion.
Chang-e 4 also brought a mini-biosphere with it, including seeds from six living species – cotton, potato, rapeseed, yeast, Arabidopsis, and fruit flies. Mission planners expect to produce the first flower on the Moon within its confines.
The spacecraft launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in southwestern China, on December 8.
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