China’s latest moon mission to put rover where none have gone before

7 Dec 2018

China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Image: China National Space Administration

China’s ambitions in space are about to be expanded as it attempts to be the first country to land a rover on the far side of the moon.

The US’s place as the dominant spacefaring nation is quickly becoming less secure as China pumps billions of dollars into its own space programme.

While China is currently building a modular space station in Earth’s orbit – soon to become the only functioning one after the International Space Station’s retirement in 2024 – it is now attempting something no nation has done before.

According to The Guardian, China’s space agency is set to launch a new mission at 7.30pm UTC today (7 December) that will launch a robotic lander to the far side of the moon to explore the largest known impact crater in the entire solar system.

Called Chang’e 4, after the name of the Chinese moon goddess, the mission will launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s south-west province of Sichuan. Interestingly, there is a sense of secrecy surrounding the exact landing site of the rover within the 24,000km-wide crater.

Following launch, the rocket carrying the probe will enter lunar orbit and slowly descend until it drops the lander within a few metres of the surface in the first few days of 2019. Then, the rover will roll its way out and begin its scientific mission.

Instruments built into the large lander will allow it to study the geology of the moon, as well as examine the strength of the solar wind that continually bombards our planet and the moon. Another major experiment taking place on board will see how plants grow in the confines of the significantly weaker lunar gravity.

Illustration of what Chang’e 4 will look like on the moon.

Illustration of what Chang’e 4 will look like on the moon. Image: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation

Race to the moon

Speaking of the mission, Tamela Maciel of the UK National Space Centre said: “By landing on the far side for the first time, the Chang’e 4 lander and rover will help us understand so much more about the moon’s formation and history.

“But, just as importantly, it gives us practice operating a mission from the far side of the moon, and relaying data back to Earth via a satellite circling the far side.”

This relaying of information will be achieved using the Chinese space agency’s Queqiao satellite, placed in a ‘halo orbit’ that covers the far side of the moon. The mission is timely given the world’s renewed interest in the moon as talk of Mars missions are put on the backburner.

NASA, for example, recently announced plans ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing to send humans to the moon again. This time, however, the agency said that it wants to establish permanent settlements on the lunar surface.

If Chang’e 4 is successful, Maciel said that it could open a new avenue of astronomy in the years to come.

“With a radio telescope on the far side of the moon, we would be able to explore the furthest and oldest objects in the universe like never before. But first, we have to practise operating a mission from the far side first, and that’s what Chang’e 4 will help us do.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic