The first spacecraft to attempt a landing on the far side of the moon was due to blast off from a launch facility in China earlier today.
The China National Space Administration’s Chang’e 4 mission aims to drop a robotic lander and rover into the moon’s vast and unexplored South Pole-Aitken basin, the largest and deepest impact crater in the solar system.
Named after the Chinese moon goddess, the spacecraft was expected to launch at about 2:30am from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province. The basin it is bound for is more than 24,000km across and 13km deep.
“Going to the far side of the moon is a major technological feather in the cap for China,” said Katherine Joy, a lunar scientist at the University of Manchester.
“It’s going to a place that is really special for lunar science. The impact crater carved a huge hole in the lunar crust and possibly into the lunar mantle. It potentially unlocks rocks that we wouldn’t normally find on the surface of the moon,” she added.
The probe is to swing into lunar orbit, descend on thrusters and then drop the final few meters to the surface in the first week of next month.
Once the dust has settled, the lander is to deploy a ramp for the onboard rover to trundle down. In all, the mission is to deliver more than 1 tonne of hardware to the moon’s surface.
Chinese officials have revealed few details about the probe’s precise landing site, but a study in May from researchers at the Planetary Science Institute at the China University of Geosciences described how Chang’e 4 would explore the Von Karman crater inside the basin.
In targeting the side of the moon that always faces away from Earth, mission controllers must contend with the fact that they cannot communicate directly with the spacecraft.
Instead, messages to and from Chang’e 4 are to be relayed by the agency’s Queqiao satellite, which is in a “halo orbit” on the other side of the moon.
Instruments on board the lander and rover are to allow them to study the local lunar geology, probe the moon’s interior and analyze the solar wind — the stream of high-energy particles that comes flooding out of the sun. One experiment is to test how well plants grow in the feeble lunar gravity.
“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,” British National Space Centre space communications manager Tamela Maciel said.
One of the moon’s mysteries is why the near side has a different chemical makeup to the far side. By landing and examining the far side’s geology, scientists might get some hints as to how this came about.
Beyond the science of understanding how the moon came to be, scientists see other benefits in working on the surface. The moon makes an excellent observation post for the Earth and sun, and on the far side of the moon the electromagnetic noise from terrestrial broadcasts are almost entirely blocked out, making it a prime spot from which to perform radio astronomy.
“Astronomers have long dreamed of a radio telescope array built on the far side of the moon,” Maciel said. “Since the far side of the moon never faces the Earth, it’s shielded from all of our radio noise and a radio telescope here would be like escaping from city light pollution and seeing the night sky from the top of a mountain.”
“We would be able to explore the furthest and oldest objects in the universe like never before, but first we have to practice operating a mission from the far side and that’s what Chang’e 4 will help us do,” Maciel added.
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