Mankind will soon have a deeper understanding of the far side of the moon as a Chinese lunar explorer is scheduled to land there next month.
The Chang’e 4 robotic probe, the first man-made object to make a soft landing on the moon’s far side, was lifted atop a Long March 3B carrier rocket early on Dec 8 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, Sichuan province, on an expedition to the lunar region that never faces us.
The spacecraft is expected to journey 26 days before reaching its destination, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp said, predicting Jan 2 as the landing date.
During its multiweek flight, the probe will enter a lunar-transfer trajectory and then orbit around the moon before making an autonomous soft landing at Aitken basin near the lunar South Pole, said the China National Space Administration.
Tidal forces on Earth slow the moon’s rotation to the point where the same side always faces Earth. The other side, most of which is never visible from Earth, is the far side of the moon.
Though the far side has been extensively photographed by spacecraft, beginning with a Soviet probe in 1959, no probe had ever made a soft landing there, so scientists around the world have yet to conduct close observations and surveys of the region.
The program’s scientific tasks are to perform low-frequency astronomical observations, survey landscapes, mineral compositions and geological structures, and conduct environmental research on chemical elements and subatomic particles, the administration explained.
The Chang’e 4 mission will enable scientists to discover more about Earth’s largest satellite. They can also take advantage of the far side’s shield against Earth’s interference to make clearer observations into deep space, scientists said.
Zou Yongliao, head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Lunar and Deep-space Explorations Department, said the South Pole-Aitken basin has a diameter of about 2,500 kilometers and is around 12 km deep, noting it is the largest and deepest known basin in the solar system.
Investigations by the Chang’e 4 probe will help researchers better understand the moon’s evolution, Earth and the entire universe, Zou said.
He added that astronomers around the world have been dreaming of observing low-frequency cosmic rays from the far side of the moon.
Chang’e 4 consists of two parts, a lander and a rover, and the two carry multiple scientific instruments, according to Wu Weiren, chief engineer of China’s lunar exploration program. The probe was designed based on its predecessor, the Chang’e 3, with some modifications, he said.
Chang’e 4’s rover has six wheels, two solar panels, a radar dish as well as multiple cameras. The rover is the lightest of its kind, weighing just 140 kilograms, Wu said.
The Chang’e 4 mission also uses apparatus developed by the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
China started sending robotic probes to the moon in 2007, and has carried out several lunar missions since then.
The Chang’e 5 mission is set to take place in 2019 and will put a rover on the lunar surface to take samples and then bring them back to Earth.