China's Chang'e-4 probe soft-lands on moon's far side

Rodiano Bonacci
Settembre 13, 2019

It's not so "dark" any more.

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While spacecraft have been able to take photographs of the far side of the Moon before, this is the first time we've ever managed to successfully land something on the surface: NASA's Ranger 4 probe touched down in 1962, but ended up malfunctioning and didn't send any data back.

One challenge of operating on the far side of the moon is communicating with Earth.

Chinese state media is reporting that China's Chang'e 4 robotic probe is expected to land on the far side of the moon tonight. Space programs in the United States and the former Soviet Union made intense efforts at lunar exploration in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. According to National Geographic, though CNSA is secretive, previous reports indicated it was targeting the Von Kármán crater located in the Moon's South Pole-Aitken basin, the latter of which is "a low-lying feature more than 2,414km across that covers almost a quarter of the Moon's surface", in addition to one of the largest known impact craters in the Solar System. Chang'e-4's observations could give clues to the processes behind the differences.

The craft's rover, called Yutu 2, has started to make its way across the lunar surface. Scientists hope there will be flowers blooming on the moon within three months. The final descent came about from a landing orbit 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) above the moon's surface.

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Since launching its first astronaut into space in 2003, China has been on an ambitious drive to catch up with the pack led by the United States.

"The surface is soft and it is similar that you are walking on the snow", Shen Zhenrong, the rover designer from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., said on CCTV.

Since the moon's revolution cycle is the same as its rotation cycle, the same side always faces the Earth. The satellite is appropriately named since Queqiao means "bridge of magpies". Its name comes from that of a Chinese goddess who, according to legend, has lived on the moon for millennia. But the Chang'e-4 landing opens the mysterious far side for up-close exploration. The agency did release a video of the landing, which was created by combining 3,000 images of the descent and speeding it up. The Yutu 2 rover captured this image, which shows off the lander's low-frequency radio spectrometer and its 16-foot antennae. Change'4 returned the favor and also took an image of its companion. The other side, most of which can not be seen from the Earth, is called the far side or dark side because most of it is uncharted. This intrigues scientists since it has a "really ancient crust that dates back to the very, very early solar system".

It continued with a near side lander, Chang'e-3, in 2013. The un-crewed Chang'e-4 probe touched down at 10:26 a.m. Beijing time on Thursday in the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The site could end up being an important one for refueling during space exploration.

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