China has become the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. At about 0230 GMT on Thursday, January 3, the Chang’e 4—a robotic probe—landed in the South Pole-Aitken basin, which is located at the lunar south pole and is the deepest and oldest basin in the moon. The moment has been hailed as historic by scientists around the globe.
Prior to the probe’s landing, the South Pole-Aitken basin had been unexplored by humans. In the months leading up to the landing, Chinese officials kept information about the mission confidential. No details of the operation or an approximate touchdown date were released.
“We know the far side from orbital images and satellites, but we don’t know it from the surface. It’s uncharted territory and that makes it very exciting,” said Martin Wieser, a scientist with the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, which manufactured the Advanced Small Analyzer for Neutrals (ASAN) instrument for the Chinese spacecraft. The ASAN will study the relationship between the solar wind and the lunar surface.
On behalf of NASA, Jim Brindenstine, the agency’s administrator, congratulated the Chinese with a tweet. Displaying a sporting attitude, he wrote, “Congratulations to China’s Chang’e-4 team for what appears to be a successful landing on the far side of the moon. This is a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment!”
The Chinese Space Agency faced considerable challenges throughout the process. For example, the Chinese were unable to directly communicate with Chang’e 4. Instead, they had to relay signals to the robotic probe via a relay satellite orbiting on the other side of the moon. Consequently, the Chinese spacecraft had to conduct its landing without any manual control from Earth. It was outfitted, however, with a camera—which enabled the scientists to monitor its descent—and a rocket booster to accelerate and decelerate as it made its final approach.
Chang’e 4 is comprised of an orbiter, lander, and rover spacecraft. It launched from China in early December and will stay on the surface of the moon for about three months.
For decades, the far side of the moon has been a source of wonder and excitement for scientists. It is an area peppered with craters of all sizes and depths. Scientists believe the area holds the secret to determining the origin of the Earth’s satellite.
The Chinese aren’t content to rest on their laurels. Already they are planning two additional trips to the moon to collect lunar samples. Alongside the U.S. and Russia, China is the only country in the world with the capability to send its astronauts to space. Their accomplishment and plans reveal their ambition to dominate the space race.