China’s Chang’e 4 lands where no spacecraft has ever landed before. The probe immediately began taking photos of the surface of the Moon’s far side.
Yesterday, Jan. 2, 2019 at 12 p.m. local time (8 p.m. PT), Chinese media announced that the nation’s Chang’e-4 lunar lander has successfully reached the far side of the moon. Thus, making it the first spacecraft to do so.
The spacecraft touched down on the floor of the 115-mile-wide (186 kilometers) South Pole-Aitken basin’s Von Kármán Crater. It sent back the first photo of the lunar surface a few hours later, via the relay satellite Queqiao (Magpie Bridge), according to the state-run China Global Television Network.
The epic touchdown followed closely on the heels of two big NASA spaceflight milestones. On Dec. 31, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft entered orbit around the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, and the New Horizons probe zoomed past the distant object Ultima Thule just after midnight on Jan. 1.
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Launched on Dec. 7, the Chang’e 4 craft comprises both a lunar lander and a six-wheeled rover. The spacecraft entered lunar orbit on Dec. 12 before preparations for landing nudged the spacecraft into an elliptical lunar orbit, getting as close as 15 kilometers (around 9 miles) from the surface.
However, the far side is a much tougher target for surface exploration because the moon’s rocky bulk would block direct communication with any landers or rovers there. According to Andrew Jones, a journalist reporting on the Chinese space program, Chang’e 4’s descent required “laser ranging and optical cameras for navigation, velocity, and coarse hazard avoidance.”
To communicate with the Chang’e 4 mission on the moon’s surface, the Chinese space agency launched the Queqiao relay satellite into a halo orbit over the dark side of the moon in May. The satellite overcomes the communications challenge, allowing the lander and rover to phone home, via relay, and send scientific data back.
Scientists believe the ancient crater, part of the 13-kilometer-deep South Pole-Aitken (SPA) Basin, holds material kicked up from deep within the lunar soil due to an impact early on in the moon’s life, providing new insights on what makes up its interior. The lander also carries seeds and silkworm eggs within a sealed container and will examine whether the two lifeforms can thrive on the moon.
Over the coming months, Chang’e 4 will perform a variety of scientific work. Therefore, the robotic lander will help scientists better understand the structure, formation, and evolution of Earth’s natural satellite.
Thumbnail image: The first image of the moon’s far side taken by China’s Chang’e 4 probe, which touched down on Jan. 2, 2019 (Jan. 3 Beijing time). Credit: CNSA