China has launched a rover on December 8, 2018, that will land on the far side of the moon, a global first that would boost Beijing’s ambitions to become a space superpower.
The Chang’e-4 lunar probe mission named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology launched on a Long March 3B rocket from the southwestern Xichang launch centre in the pre-dawn hours, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The successful launch marked the start of a long journey to the far side of the moon for the Chang’e-4 mission, which is expected to land around the New Year to carry out experiments and explore the untrodden terrain.
The probe is carrying six experiments from China and four from abroad.
They include low-frequency radio astronomical studies aiming to take advantage of the lack of interference on the far side mineral tests, and experiments planting a potato and other seeds.
Beijing is pouring billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022, and of eventually sending humans to the moon.
The Chang’e 4 mission is a step in that direction, significant for the engineering expertise needed to explore and settle the moon.
During the lunar night which lasts 14 earth days temperatures will drop as low as minus 173 degrees Celsius (-279 Fahrenheit), while during the lunar day, also lasting 14 earth days, temperatures rocket as high as 127 C (261 F).
Instruments must withstand those fluctuations and generate enough energy to sustain it during the long night.
Chang’e-4 conquered those challenges and, after initial setbacks, ultimately surveyed the moon’s surface for 31 months. Its success provided a major boost to China’s space programme.
Unlike the near side of the moon that is “tidally locked” and always faces the earth, and offers many flat areas to touch down on, the far side is mountainous and rugged.
It was not until 1959 that the Soviet Union captured the first images of the heavily cratered surface, uncloaking some of the mystery of the moon’s “dark side”.
No lander or rover has ever touched the surface there, positioning China as the first nation to explore the terrain.
This is one of the first times they’ve done something that no one else has done before. It is no easy technological feat China has been preparing for this moment for years.
A major challenge for such a mission is communicating with the robotic lander: as the far side of the moon always points away from earth, there is no direct “line of sight” for signals.
As a solution, China in May blasted the Queqiao (“Magpie Bridge”) satellite into the moon’s orbit, positioning it so that it can relay data and commands between the lander and earth.
Adding to the difficulties, Chang’e-4 is being sent to the Aitken Basin in the lunar South Pole region known for its craggy and complex terrain state media has said.
Beijing is planning to send another lunar lander, Chang’e-5, next year to collect samples and bring them back to earth.
It is among a slew of ambitious Chinese targets, which include a reusable launcher by 2021, a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and private rocket firm SpaceX can handle a moon base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover.