A HIS­TORIC FIRST ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOON

China has suc­cess­fully landed a space­craft on the moon, an­nounc­ing its ar­rival as a bona fide space power

Sunday Tribune - - MOON LANDING - SARAH KAPLAN and GERRY SHIH

THE PROBE, named Chang’e 4, launched from south-west China last month and which landed at 10.26am (lo­cal time) on Wed­nes­day in Von Kar­man crater within the moon’s South Pole-aitken basin, the largest known im­pact crater in the so­lar sys­tem.

Shortly af­ter land­ing, a rover on the land­ing craft dis­patched the first photo of the moon’s sur­face from its far side back to Earth via a satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­lay.

The land­ing “marked a new chap­ter in the hu­man race’s lu­nar and space ex­plo­ration,” the China Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (CNSA) said.

“The far side of the moon is a rare, quiet place that is free from in­ter­fer­ence of ra­dio sig­nals from Earth,” mis­sion spokesper­son Yu Guobin said. “This probe can fill the gap of low-fre­quency ob­ser­va­tion in ra­dio as­tron­omy and will pro­vide im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion for study­ing the ori­gin of stars and ne­bula evo­lu­tion.”

Although China, the US and Rus­sia have op­er­ated ro­botic space­craft on the moon be­fore, Chang’e 4 is the first to land softly on the side of the satel­lite that al­ways faces away from the Earth. The ge­ol­ogy on this side of the moon is dis­tinc­tive, with more craters and less ev­i­dence of vol­canic ac­tiv­ity. But it’s dif­fi­cult to ex­plore be­cause sci­en­tists on Earth can’t com­mu­ni­cate via ra­dio sig­nal with space­craft in this re­mote re­gion – a quandary China’s re­lay satel­lite has solved.

The mis­sion trans­mit­ted an or­anget­inted, high-def­i­ni­tion photo of the moon’s lightly pock­marked sur­face.

The land­ing demon­strated China’s am­bi­tions to be­come a space power and sci­en­tific force in an era when Nasa fund­ing has been shrink­ing as a per­cent­age of the US fed­eral bud­get. China spends more on sci­en­tific re­search than any na­tion but the US, and it launched more rock­ets than any other coun­try last year.

Last month, China an­nounced it was start­ing a global ser­vice for Beidou – a home-grown satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem de­signed to com­pete with the US Global Po­si­tion­ing Sys­tem (GPS).

“This is more than just a land­ing,” said Alan Duffy, a sci­en­tist with the Royal In­sti­tu­tion of Aus­tralia who fo­cuses on space ex­plo­ration.

“To­day’s an­nounce­ment was a clear state­ment about the level of ma­tu­rity that China’s tech­nol­ogy has reached. Beijing’s longer-term goal to match US ca­pa­bil­i­ties could be­come re­al­ity within two decades and on the moon within per­haps only one decade.”

China is far from the only na­tion with its eye on the lu­nar sur­face. In­dia, Is­rael and Ger­many have lan­der mis­sions planned for the year, and the Rus­sian and Ja­panese space agen­cies aim to send space­craft to the moon in the early 2020s.

“The whole world is rais­ing their game,” said Maria Zu­ber, a lu­nar geo­physi­cist at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

In Novem­ber, Nasa said it would be­gin con­tract­ing with pri­vate aero­space com­pa­nies to send sci­en­tific pay­loads to the lu­nar sur­face. The mis­sions could start this year.

Chang’e 4 was the lat­est in a se­ries aimed at ex­plor­ing the moon and paving the way for Chi­nese as­tro­nauts to even­tu­ally land on the lu­nar sur­face. Its pre­de­ces­sor Chang’e 3 de­liv­ered a rover called Jade Rab­bit to the lu­nar near­side, where it worked for more than two years. In Chi­nese mythol­ogy, Chang’e is the name of a god­dess who lived on the moon.

The Chang’e 4 mis­sion will use its cam­eras and ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar to un­der­stand the com­po­si­tion of the Von Kar­man crater within the Aitken basin.

There, it’s thought that an an­cient me­teor im­pact dur­ing the early days of the so­lar sys­tem ex­posed ma­te­rial from the moon’s deep in­te­rior. Ob­tain­ing a pre­cise date for the event, and prob­ing the prim­i­tive rock it re­vealed, could help solve lin­ger­ing mys­ter­ies about the for­ma­tion of the moon and the his­tory of the so­lar sys­tem.

Ex­plor­ing the Aitken basin has been a pri­or­ity for the US Na­tional Academies of Sci­ence, En­gi­neer­ing and Medicine for the past two decades, said Clive Neal, a Notre Dame ge­ol­o­gist who is emer­i­tus chair of the US Lu­nar Ex­plo­ration Anal­y­sis Group. That goal, he said, “has yet to be re­alised by a Us-led mis­sion”. Still, Zu­ber said, the Chang’e 4 in­stru­ment suite did not in­clude some of the tools re­quired to probe all the ques­tions sci­en­tists have.

A spec­trom­e­ter on the rover will con­duct low fre­quency ra­dio as­tron­omy ob­ser­va­tions away from the noise of ra­dio net­works. The in­ter­ac­tion of Earth’s grav­ity with the moon’s ro­ta­tion means it faces away from us, mak­ing it an ideal site to probe the cos­mos with­out in­ter­fer­ence.

And the static part of the Chang’e 4 lan­der car­ries a small, sealed cap­sule con­tain­ing plant seeds and in­sect eggs. If the del­i­cate cargo can be en­cour­aged to ger­mi­nate and hatch in the moon’s low grav­ity, they might form a bio­sphere – a tiny oa­sis of life on a cold and airless world.

China’s space pro­gramme fund­ing to­talled $11 bil­lion in 2017 – com­pared with $19bn re­quested by Nasa. The coun­try plans to launch a sam­ple re­turn mis­sion to the moon later this year and has am­bi­tions to crew a lu­nar base, launch a low-or­bit space sta­tion and send a probe to Mars by the 2020s.

Nasa ad­min­is­tra­tor Jim Bri­den­s­tine con­grat­u­lated China in a tweet on Wed­nes­day night.

“This is a first for hu­man­ity and an im­pres­sive ac­com­plish­ment.”

The of­fi­cial reaction in China was ebul­lient. The Global Times, a news­pa­per run by the Com­mu­nist Party, said China would share the data and pic­tures it ob­tained and work with any coun­tries com­mit­ted to “the peace­ful de­vel­op­ment of space”.

THE FIRST im­age of the moon’s far side taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe. | Cour­tesy of China Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion

AN IM­AGE taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe af­ter its moon land­ing. Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion | Cour­tesy of China

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