China launches pioneering mission to far side of moon

Cristina Cross
January 5, 2019

China is going to launch a spacecraft to the far side of the Moon in the next 24 hours and, if the mission succeeds, it will become the first country to land a probe there. A maintained lunar mission is likewise under thought. So far, the spacecraft appears to be in good health. Whenever it occurs, the seven-step landing process-which will be entirely autonomous-will last just 11 minutes from the deorbit burn to touching down on the surface.

The launch of Chang'e 4's lander and rover suggests the completion of the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme (CLEP), one of 16 key technologies identified by the Chinese government.

The complex crater, as the scientists hope, might even provide insight into Moon's upper mantle materials. The crater experiences about 14 days of sunlight with average temperatures up to 110 degrees Celsius, before plummeting to some -173 degrees C for about 14 days of night.

The Chang'e-4 lunar probe is expected to be launched at about 18:30 GMT from the Xichang space center in China's Sichuan province, and land in the largest and deepest crater of the Moon, the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin, in January. The two missions are nearly identical in design; the former was originally built as a backup for the latter.

Chang'e 4 is a major advance for the Chinese lunar program.

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Because the far side of the moon is free from interference from radio frequencies, the mission requires a relay satellite to transmit signals that was launched into place this year. "A farside landing is a big deal, because nobody's ever done it", says Roger Launius, NASA's former chief historian.

Landing on the far side means that the Moon will separate the spacecraft from Earth, making it impossible for the probe to communicate directly with our planet.

This relaying of information will be achieved using the Chinese space agency's Queqiao satellite, placed in a "halo orbit" that covers the far side of the moon. Upon arrival at our rocky satellite, an accompanying lander, which doubles as a rover, will descend towards the surface. Then, the rover will roll its way out and begin its scientific mission.

The CE-4's main goal is to map the region that surrounds the site, determine the structure of the subsurface layers using ground penetrating radar, and get data of the mineral composition at the surface using a near and infrared spectrometer. Also onboard are two European-led experiments, one from Christian Albrechts University of Kiel in Germany and another from the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, which will study cosmic rays and solar wind hitting the surface.

All of this is leading up to the Chang'e 5 sample-return mission, which could launch toward the near side as early as next year. The Chang'e 4 mission will launch toward the far side on December 7, 2018.

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