China targets dark side of the moon with space probe

Beijing eyes lunar destination where no one has gone before with Chang’e 4 spacecraft

China has launched a daring space mission to boldly go where no one has gone before by landing a lunar probe on the dark side of the moon.

A Long March-3B rocket, carrying a lunar lander and a rover, blasted off from the Xichang satellite launch centre in the southwestern province of Sichuan in the early hours of Saturday, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Chang’e 4, named for the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology, will explore above and below the lunar surface after it arrives at the South Pole-Aitken basin’s Von Karman crater following a 27-day journey.

“The soft landing and exploration of the far side, which has never been done before, will gain first-hand information about the terrain and lunar soil components and other scientific data, which will help enrich our understanding of the moon and the universe,” Zhang He, executive director of the Chang’e-4 project, told Xinhua.

The landing is expected in early January, when Chang’e 4 will touch down on the heavily cratered terrain of the lunar far side, said the China National Space Administration. China hopes to be the first country to make a soft landing, where a spacecraft touches down without incurring serious damage. The mission underlines China’s ambition to become a space power to rival the US, Russia and the EU. The moon’s far side is known as the dark side not because it is dark but because it faces away from Earth and remains relatively unknown.

The dark side has a different composition than the near side, with a thicker crust and it is more heavily cratered. Among the tasks the Chang’e 4 will carry out are surveying the terrain and landforms, and detecting mineral composition and surface structure. Scientists have long discussed the possibility of building observatories on the dark side, which allow astronomers to observe deep space free from interference from the Earth’s atmosphere and the lander will perform radio-astronomical studies on the mission. It may also carry plant seeds and silkworm eggs, according to Xinhua.

The moon blocks radio signals, so to allow communication between controllers on Earth and the Chang’e 4 mission, China launched a relay satellite named Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, in May. Scientists from Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia developed payloads for the mission, while three scientific and technological experiments designed by Chinese universities will also be carried out.

China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the US to do so. It landed the Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover on the moon five years ago and plans to send its Chang’e 5 probe there next year and have it return to Earth with samples. A crewed mission to the moon is also being considered. China has put two space stations into orbit, one of which is still operating to prepare for a 60-ton station that is due to come online in 2022. The launch of a Mars rover is planned for the middle of the 2020s.