China casts new light on ‘dark’ side of the moon

China’s his­toric land­ing may of­fer many in­sights into the uni­verse — and could even get the US think­ing about re-en­ter­ing the space race

Financial Mail - - SPACE TRAVEL - Sylvia Mckeown

It’s a some­what amus­ing thought, pic­tur­ing the uni­verse’s loneli­est potato. A hearty, sin­gle spud gal­lantly at­tempt­ing to grow on a dusty rock that is or­bit­ing the loud green one — home to its friends — down be­low. It has noth­ing for com­pany save some toma­toes, mouse-eared cress and silk­worms. And a robot named af­ter a rab­bit.

Last week, the Chi­nese space probe Chang’e 4 made his­tory with the first suc­cess­ful land­ing on the “dark side” of the moon. The car­sized space­craft, named af­ter the Chi­nese moon god­dess, be­came the first ves­sel to land in­tact, ob­scured from our view.

This was mostly thanks to Mag­pie Bridge, a com­mu­ni­ca­tions-re­lay satel­lite po­si­tioned more than 80,000km be­yond the moon, which bounced trans­mis­sions be­tween the Chang’e 4 and Chi­nese space sta­tions.

Just 12 hours af­ter the smooth land­ing in Aitken basin’s Von Kár­mán crater, Chang’e 4 — packed with a pay­load sup­plied by in­ter­na­tional part­ners in Swe­den, Ger­many, the Nether­lands and Saudi Ara­bia — dis­patched the rover Yutu 2, named af­ter the god­dess’s pet jade rab­bit, to be­gin tests and an even­tual small-scale gar­den­ing scheme.

Chang’e 4 is part of a much big­ger process: China has been sys­tem­at­i­cally in­ves­ti­gat­ing the moon for the past 12 years. It started with Chang’e 1 (2007) and Chang’e 2 (2010) or­bit­ing the nat­u­ral satel­lite for sci­en­tific pur­poses. In 2013 Chang’e 3 per­formed China’s first in­ves­ti­ga­tory land­ing on the moon’s “near” side.

The Chang’e 4 land­ing marks the sec­ond half of the ex­plo­ration por­tion of China’s goal of manning an out­post on the moon’s south pole by 2030. The next step is set to take place in De­cem­ber, when Chang’e 5 will be tasked with trans­port­ing a 2kg lu­nar sam­ple of basalt, mined 2m be­low the moon’s sur­face, back to Earth for fur­ther ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

For now, Chang’e 4 has drawn fan­fare from sci­en­tific com­mu­ni­ties around the world. It’s a very ex­cit­ing prospect to fi­nally be able to ex­plore the far side of our clos­est neigh­bour. For­get what Pink Floyd may have led you to be­lieve: the im­ages trans­mit­ted by Yutu 2 prove that the far side is ac­tu­ally far lighter than the one we see.

The dark spots that have de­lighted the imag­i­na­tion with im­ages of jade rab­bits, cheese and old men are formed from en­crusted magma that lines the craters left by me­teor strikes. This is mostly be­cause the moon’s crust is thought to be thin­ner on “our” side, mak­ing it eas­ier for magma to emerge.

Why the dis­crep­ancy? We don’t know. But Bri­ony Hor­gan, a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist at Pur­due Univer­sity in the US, is hope­ful that Chang’e 4 will pro­vide hints to the an­swer.

“The his­tory of the very early so­lar sys­tem is locked up in the rocks of the far side,” Hor­gan told The New York Times.

The only dark­ness that the far side of the moon can pro­vide is that of ra­dio si­lence, and that would be a big boost for sci­en­tists.

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