Chang'e-4 captures lunar crater

Chinese probe first to reach far side of Moon

Image credit: China National Space Administration/Xinhua News Agency via AP

A Chinese space probe has safely landed on the far side of the Moon in a historic first for space exploration, the China National Space Administration has announced.

The Chang’e-4 probe – which was named after the Chinese goddess of the moon – was launched in December. It made a soft landing – resulting in no serious damage to the vehicle and its payload – at 0226GMT on Thursday morning, touching down in the mostly flat targeted area in the Von Kármán Crater, which is contained without the larger South Pole-Aitken basin near the lunar South Pole.

The news was announced by state broadcaster China Central Television during its noon broadcast. The national space agency hailed the achievement as a historic first which has “lifted the mysterious veil” of this side of the Moon, and “opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration”. The space agency has released a colour photograph of a barren crater on the surface: the first close-range photograph of the far side of the Moon.

“It’s an important milestone for China’s space exploration,” Wu Weiren, chief designer of the programme, said in a statement.

In 2013, Chang’e-3 (Chang’e-4’s predecessor) made the first Moon landing since the Soviet landing of 1976, and making China the third country to complete a lunar landing. In May 2018, the agency launched a relay satellite in a step towards its exploration of the far side of the Moon.

The Moon is tidally locked to Earth, rotating at the same rate as it orbits the planet, so one side is never visible from Earth. The mysterious far face (sometimes mistakenly described as the “dark side of the Moon”) has only been observed by passing spacecraft; this is the first landing on the far side.

“The far side of the Moon is a rare quiet place that is free from interference of radio signals from Earth,” said Yu Guobin, mission spokesperson, according to Chinese state media. “This probe can fill the gap of low-frequency observation in radio astronomy and will provide important information for studying the origin of stars and nebula evolution.”

The Chang’e-4 rover will separate from the lander and survey the terrain of the Moon, collect data on its landform and mineral make-up, and measure neutron radiation and neutral atoms to help scientists understand its environment. According to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, Chang’e-4 will also attempt to cultivate cotton, rapeseed, potato, Arabidopsis (a type of cress), fruit flies and yeast on the Moon in order to form a mini biosphere.

China is racing to become a world leader in space exploration by 2030, with the government planning to begin construction of its own manned space station in 2020: the Chinese large modular space station.

China’s space activities have attracted some criticism from the US (particularly regarding the 2007 testing of anti-satellite missiles) and Congress has forbidden Nasa from collaborating with the China National Space Administration. However, Beijing has asserted that its space ambitions are entirely peaceful.

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