Pioneering Moon mission lifts off China
China has launched a ground-breaking mission to land a spacecraft on the largely unexplored far side of the Moon, demonstrating its growing ambitions as a space power to rival Russia, the European Union and the United States.
A Long March 3B rocket carrying a lunar probe blasted off yesterday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan province in southwestern China, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
With its Chang’e 4 mission, China hopes to be the first country to make a soft landing of a spacecraft, during which no serious damage is incurred, on the Moon’s far side, also known as the dark side because it faces away from Earth and remains comparatively unknown.
It has a different composition than sites on the near side, where previous missions have landed.
If successful, the mission would propel the Chinese space programme into a leading position in one of the most important areas of lunar exploration.
China landed its Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover on the moon five years ago, and plans to have its Chang’e 5 probe land there next year and return to Earth with samples – the first time this will have been done since 1976. A crewed lunar mission is also under consideration.
Chang’e 4 is a lander-rover combination, and will explore both above and below the lunar surface after arriving at the South Pole-Aitken basin’s Von Karman crater following a 27-day journey.
It will also perform radio-astronomical studies that, because the far side always faces away from Earth, will be ‘‘free from interference from our planet’s ionosphere, human-made radio frequencies and auroral radiation noise’’, space industry expert Leonard David wrote on the website Space.com. It may also carry plant seeds and silkworm eggs, according to Xinhua.
China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, making it only the third country after Russia and the US to do so. It has put a pair of space stations into orbit, one of which is still operating as a precursor to a larger station that is due to come online in 2022. The launch of a Mars rover is planned for the mid-2020s.
China’s space programme suffered a rare setback last year with the failed launch of its Long March 5 rocket.
A rocket carrying the Chang’e 4 lunar probe, which will explore the Moon’s largely unknown far side, is launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.