China's Chang'e-4 spacecraft launched in world's first mission to moon's far side

China is keen to demonstrate its ambition as a space power to rival Russia, the EU & the US.

In the early hours on Saturday, China successfully launched an ambitious new mission to land a spacecraft on the largely-unexplored far side of the Moon.

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 at 2.23 am ET (23:34 pm IST), according to a Xinhua report.

The launch has now put the Chang’e-4 spacecraft on a month-long journey to the Moon, touching down in early January.

If China succeeds in that too, the country's space program will be propelled to occupying a leading position in one of the most important areas of lunar exploration. The launch marks China's renewed ambition for future lunar missions, sure to catapult the country into history books for being the first country to even attempt such a feat.

With the mission, China is keen to demonstrate its ambition to be a space power rivaling Russia, the European Union and the US.

A Long March 3B rocket takes off from a launchpad in the XLC, China. Image courtesy: GBT

A Long March 3B rocket takes off from a launchpad in the XLC, China. Image courtesy: GBT

"Chang'e-4 is humanity's first probe to land on and explore the far side of the moon," said the mission's chief commander He Rongwei of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the main state-owned space contractor. "This mission is also the most meaningful deep space exploration research project in the world in 2018," Rongwei told Global Times.

China entered the elite fray of moon-faring nations by putting its Yutu ("Jade Rabbit") rover mission on the Moon in 2013. 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, to visit a part of the Moon that has hardly been explored, is underway.

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.

The near side of the moon is "tidally locked" to always face the Earth, and offers many flat areas for a spacecraft to touch down. But the far side is mountainous and rugged. 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, a lunar mission will need multiple spacecrafts working in tandem — rovers or landers to collect data on the surface and a probe near the Moon to relay data and communications back to Earth.

This is something China’s has already prepared for.

Moon

Communication link

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 is being sent to the Aitken Basin in the lunar south pole region – known for its craggy and complex terrain, the Xinhua report has said.

The probe is carrying six experiments from China and four from abroad. These include low-frequency radio-astronomical studies – to take advantage of the lack of interference on the far side – as well as mineral and radiation tests, Xinhua cited the China National Space Administration as saying.

The experiments also involve planting potato and other seeds, according to reports.

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

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.

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

Next up: Humans

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, McDowell said.

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.

Other rungs in China's space exploration ladder include reusable launchers by 2021, a super-powerful rocket capable of delivering payloads heavier than those NASA and SpaceX can handle, a moon base, a permanently crewed space station, and a Mars rover.

"Our country's successful lunar exploration project not only vaults us to the top of the world's space power ranks, it also allows the exploration of the far side of the moon," said Niu Min, an expert on China's space programme. The project, he said in an interview with local website Netease, "greatly inspires everyone's national pride and self-confidence".

 

 

With inputs from The Associated Press

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