China prepares for historic mission to land on Moon's dark side on 8 December

The mission's success places China as the only nation to visit the Moon's face invisible to Earth.

In the early hours on Saturday, 8 December, China launches an ambitious new mission to land its spacecraft on the far side of the moon. The launch marks a renewed ambition in China’s plans for future lunar missions, sure to catapult the country into history books for being the first country to attempt such a feat if successful.

In 2013, China entered the fray, putting a lander and a rover on the Moon. The mission, known as Chang’e-3, was part of a decades-long effort to study the Moon using a robotic spacecraft. Prior to Chang’e-3, the country had put a spacecraft in lunar orbit and had also crashed a vehicle into the lunar dirt.

Now, the next step is to visit a part of the Moon that’s never been fully explored.

Tricky mission

China’s first and last touchdown on the moon was in 2013 when a lander and rover made a successful, soft-landing. The Chang’e-3 mission, as it was called, was part of a decade-long effort to put a Chinese robotic spacecraft on the moon.

Now, China has given itself a new mission: to visit a part of the moon that no one has seen before.

But there’s a reason for that.

Landing on the far side of the moon is tricky, and away from a direct line-of-sight or communication with ground control on Earth. To do the same on the Moon’s dark side, the lunar mission will need multiple spacecrafts working in tandem — rovers or landers to collect data and a probe near the Moon to relay communications to Earth.


Communication link

China’s working plan is already underway. The country’s Space Administration launched its Queqiao satellite in May this year, specifically to help with the communication needs for the upcoming lunar mission, the Chang’e-4 mission.

After spending a month in space, the satellite aligned itself into position, pointing at the Moon‘s far side. The spacecraft has parked itself at a spot in a region between the Earth and Moon called the Lagrange points, where the gravitational pull of both holds spacecrafts in a fixed position relative to both entities.

“Demonstrating that you can communicate and perform roving on the lunar far side using a relay satellite is going to be quite a technological feat, and it’s going to bring a lot of prestige,” Andrew Jones, a freelance journalist covering China’s spaceflight program, told The Verge.

The Chang'e-4 mission 

The Chang’e-4 mission will be exploratory, and won’t be bringing back any samples from the Moon. Instead, it will carry a ground-penetrating radar to look at what the Moon’s structure is like beneath its rocky and powdery surface.

Chang’e-4's rover will also be carrying a Swedish instrument to look at how flares (particle streams) and radiation from the Sun interact with the surface and rocks on the Moon.

A rendering of the Queqiao Chang'e-4 lunar satellite in the midst of a communications relay. Image: YouTube

A rendering of the Queqiao Chang'e-4 lunar satellite in the midst of a communications relay. Image: YouTube

The lander, on the other hand, will be peering into the space environment it is exposed to, which is far less protected from the different forms of energy in the universe than on Earth, where the atmosphere tunes out much of the incoming radiation.

Much like its predecessor, the Chang’e-4 mission, too, will carry onboard cameras on its lander and rover.

The Chang’e-4 mission is one rung in China’s decade-long, ambitious lunar ladder. The country’s space agency plans to launch another spacecraft, Chang’e-5, next year on a sample-return mission from the Moon’s near side.

While that ladder could most likely lead to a manned lunar mission in the distant future, for now, China is all eyes on Chang’e-4.

The mission is expected to launch on Friday, 7 December at 1.30 pm ET (Midnight on Friday, 7th December IST) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China aboard Long March 3B rockets, according to a Verge report.

A successful launch on Saturday will put Chang’e-4 on a month-long journey to the Moon, touching down in early January.

If China succeeds in that too, the country will become a pioneer in its own elite group (of one) to have visited the face of the Moon no one on Earth has yet seen.

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