China launched its most ambitious robotic lunar mission to date early Saturday. The rover will land on the far side of the moon for the first time ever.
The probe, Chang’e-4, is named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology.
The Chinese agency sent the Chang’e-4 combination static lander and rover into space atop a Long March 3B rocket at 2:22 a.m. local time Saturday (10:22 a.m. PT Friday) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s Sichuan Province, according to Sina Tech and other Chinese sources.
Scientists expect the Chang’e-4 mission to land around the New Year to carry out experiments and survey the rugged terrain.
No lander or rover has ever touched the surface there. Thus, making China the first nation to explore the area.
“Chang’e-4 is humanity’s first probe to land on and explore the far side of the moon,” said the mission’s chief commander He Rongwei of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the main state-owned space contractor.
The landers will characterize the region’s geology and the composition of rock and soil. They will study the surface with spectrometers and ground-penetrating radar. Chang’e-4 will also measure the solar wind, make low-frequency radio astronomy observations and monitor cosmic rays from a side of the moon that doesn’t experience earthly interference. The Chinese agency also attached a panoramic camera to the rover.
Teams from Germany and Sweden have also contributed a couple of the probe’s scientific instruments.
The mission will deliver samples of the lunar rock and soil to Earth as well.
Chang’e-4 will first complete a looping series of orbits for 26 days or so. Therefore, eventually, putting it into position for a landing in Von Karman Crater, part of the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The basin is the oldest and largest impact feature on the Moon.
As the far side of the moon always points away from Earth, there is no direct “line of sight”. So, China blasted the Queqiao (“Magpie Bridge”) satellite into the moon’s orbit to take care of that problem. Thus, positioning it so that it can relay data and commands between the lander and Earth.
China designed the first and second Chang’e missions to gather data from orbit, while the third and fourth were built for surface operations.
Chang’e-5 and 6 will deliver lunar rock and soil to laboratories on Earth.
Thumbnail image: An artist’s conception of the Chang’e-4 rover on the lunar surface. Credit: China Daily / Xinhua Illustration.