Historic Chinese moon lander returns first shot of unexplored region

3 Jan 2019

Image: © dottedyeti/Stock.adobe.com

Space exploration has started strongly in 2019 with China now releasing the first up-close image from the far side of the moon.

We’re only three days into 2019, and already we have witnessed the most distant flyby of an object in our solar system to be seen up close and the smallest object ever orbited by humankind, and now the unexplored far side of the moon has been seen by the Chinese lander Chang’e 4.

Last month, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched the lander from its Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the country’s south-west province of Sichuan. Its mission was to land in the largest, deepest and oldest crater on the moon’s surface, the South Pole-Aitken basin.

China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, was the first to officially confirm the successful soft landing on the basin, saying it touched down at 10.26am (2.26am UTC) today (3 January). A tweet from its English language site soon followed, revealing our first ever up-close image of the far side of the moon, cementing the country’s reputation as a spacefaring superpower.

‘A first for humanity’

The China Daily newspaper described it as an important moment for the country, saying it inaugurates “a new chapter in mankind’s lunar exploration history”. Despite being serious superpower rivals on the geopolitical stage, US space agency NASA took time to congratulate the Chang’e 4 team.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine offered his praise for “what appears to be a successful landing on the far side of the moon”. He added: “This is a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment!”

One of the great challenges of the mission was keeping Chang’e 4 in contact with the CNSA on the far side of the moon, where tidal locking means we never see the other side from Earth. In order to maintain communications, a relay satellite, whose name means ‘Magpie Bridge’, was placed in a halo orbit around the moon.

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.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic