China launches rover to far side of moon

Bangkok Post - - ASIA -

>> BEI­JING: China launched a rover early yes­ter­day des­tined to land on the far side of the moon, a global first that would boost Bei­jing’s am­bi­tions to be­come a space su­per­power, state me­dia said.

The Chang’e-4 lu­nar probe mis­sion — named af­ter the moon god­dess in Chi­nese mythol­ogy — launched on a Long March 3B rocket from the south­west­ern Xichang launch cen­tre at 2.23am lo­cal time, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cial Xin­hua news agency.

The blast-off marked the start of a long jour­ney to the far side of the moon for the Chang’e-4 mis­sion, ex­pected to land around the New Year to carry out ex­per­i­ments and sur­vey the un­trod­den ter­rain.

“Chang’e-4 is hu­man­ity’s first probe to land on and ex­plore the far side of the moon,” said the mis­sion’s chief com­man­der He Rong­wei of China Aerospace Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Corp, the main stateowned space con­trac­tor.

“This mis­sion is also the most mean­ing­ful deep space ex­plo­ration re­search project in the world in 2018,” He said, ac­cord­ing to state-run Global Times.

Un­like the near side of the moon that is “tidally locked” and al­ways faces the earth, and of­fers many flat ar­eas to touch down on, the far side is moun­tain­ous and rugged.

It was not until 1959 that the Soviet Union cap­tured the first im­ages of the heav­ily cratered sur­face, un­cloak­ing some of the mys­tery of the moon’s “dark side”.

No lan­der or rover has ever touched the sur­face there, po­si­tion­ing China as the first na­tion to ex­plore the area.

“China over the past 10 or 20 years has been sys­tem­at­i­cally tick­ing off the var­i­ous firsts that Amer­ica and the Soviet Union did in the 1960s and 1970s in space ex­plo­ration,” said Jonathan McDow­ell, an as­tronomer at the Har­vard-Smith­so­nian Cen­ter for Astro­physics.

“This is one of the first times they’ve done some­thing that no one else has done be­fore.”

It is no easy tech­no­log­i­cal feat — China has been pre­par­ing for this mo­ment for years.

A ma­jor chal­lenge for such a mis­sion is com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the robotic lan­der: as the far side of the moon al­ways points away from earth, there is no di­rect “line of sight” for sig­nals.

As a so­lu­tion, China in May blasted the Que­qiao (“Mag­pie Bridge”) satel­lite into the moon’s or­bit, po­si­tion­ing it so that it can re­lay data and com­mands be­tween the lan­der and earth.

Ad­ding to the dif­fi­cul­ties, Chang’e-4 is be­ing sent to the Aitken Basin in the lu­nar south pole re­gion — known for its craggy and com­plex ter­rain — state me­dia has said.

The probe is car­ry­ing six ex­per­i­ments from China and four from abroad.

They in­clude low-fre­quency ra­dio as­tro­nom­i­cal stud­ies — aim­ing to take ad­van­tage of the lack of in­ter­fer­ence on the far side — as well as min­eral and ra­di­a­tion tests, Xin­hua cited the China Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion as say­ing.

The ex­per­i­ments also in­volve plant­ing potato and other seeds, ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese me­dia re­ports.

Bei­jing is pour­ing bil­lions into its mil­i­tary-run space pro­gramme, with hopes of hav­ing a crewed space sta­tion by 2022, and of even­tu­ally send­ing hu­mans to the moon.

The Chang’e 4 mis­sion is a step in that di­rec­tion, sig­nif­i­cant for the en­gi­neer­ing ex­per­tise needed to ex­plore and set­tle the moon, Mr McDow­ell said.

“The main thing about this mis­sion is not sci­ence, this is a tech­nol­ogy mis­sion,” he said.

Chang’e-4 will be the sec­ond Chi­nese probe to land on the moon, fol­low­ing the Yutu (“Jade Rab­bit”) rover mis­sion in 2013.

Once on the moon’s sur­face, the rover faces an ar­ray of ex­treme chal­lenges.

Dur­ing the lu­nar night — which lasts 14 earth days — tem­per­a­tures will drop as low as mi­nus 173C. Dur­ing the lu­nar day, also last­ing 14 earth days, tem­per­a­tures soar as high as 127C.

The rover’s in­stru­ments must with­stand those fluc­tu­a­tions and it must gen­er­ate enough en­ergy to sus­tain it dur­ing the long night.

Yutu con­quered those chal­lenges and, af­ter ini­tial set­backs, ul­ti­mately sur­veyed the moon’s sur­face for 31 months. Its suc­cess pro­vided a ma­jor boost to China’s space pro­gramme.

Bei­jing is plan­ning to send an­other lu­nar lan­der, Chang’e-5, next year to col­lect sam­ples and bring them back to earth.

It is among a slew of am­bi­tious Chi­nese tar­gets, which in­clude a reusable launcher by 2021, a super-pow­er­ful rocket ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing pay­loads heav­ier than those Nasa and pri­vate rocket firm SpaceX can han­dle, a moon base, a per­ma­nently crewed space sta­tion, and a Mars rover.

“Our coun­try’s suc­cess­ful lu­nar ex­plo­ration project not only vaults us to the top of the world’s space power ranks, it also al­lows the ex­plo­ration of the far side of the moon,” said Niu Min.

The project, he said, “greatly in­spires ev­ery­one’s na­tional pride and self­con­fi­dence”.

TRIP BE­GINS: A Long March 3B rocket lifts off from the Xichang launch cen­tre in Xichang in China’s south­west­ern Sichuan prov­ince early yes­ter­day.

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