China set to launch first-ever spacecraft to the far side of the moon
Early in the New Year, if all goes well, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e-4 will arrive where no craft has been before: the far side of the moon. The mission is scheduled to launch from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province on December 8. The craft, comprising a lander and a rover, will then enter the Moon’s orbit, before touching down on the surface.
If the landing is successful, the mission’s main job will be to investigate this side of the lunar surface, which is peppered with many small craters. The lander will also conduct the first radio astronomy experiments from the far side of the Moon — and the first investigations to see whether plants will grow in the low-gravity lunar environment.
“This mission is definitely a significant and important accomplishment in lunar exploration,” says Carolyn van der Bogert, a planetary geologist at Westfälische Wilhelms University in Münster, Germany.
The ultimate goal of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is to create a Moon base for future human exploration there, although it has not announced when that might happen. Chang’e-4 will be the country’s second craft to ‘soft’ land on the lunar surface, following Chang’e-3’s touchdown in 2013.
The CNSA has remained tight-lipped about many of the mission’s details, including the landing site. The most likely location is inside a 186-kilometer-wide crater called Von Kármán, says Zongcheng Ling, who studies the formation and evolution of planetary bodies at Shandong University in Weihai and is a member of the mission’s science team. “We scientists are very happy” to have the chance to visit the far side, says Ling.
“It is a key area to answer several important questions about the early history of the moon, including its internal structure and thermal evolution,” says Bo Wu, a geoinformatician at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who helped describe the topography and geomorphology of this site.