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China’s probe lands on far side of moon

January 04, 2019

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BEIJING: A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon on Thursday, in a global first that boosts Beijing’s ambitions to become a space superpower.

The Chang’e-4 probe touched down and sent a photo of the so-called “dark side” of the moon to the Queqiao satellite, which would relay communications to controllers on Earth, China’s national space agency said on its website.

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 lunar probe mission — named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology — was launched in December from the south-western Xichang launch centre. It is the second Chinese probe to land on the moon, following the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover mission in 2013.

Unlike the near side of the moon that offers many flat areas to touch down on, the far side is mountainous and rugged.

The moon is “tidally locked” to Earth in its rotation so the same side is always facing Earth.

Chang’e-4 is carrying six experiments from China and four from abroad, including low-frequency radio astronomical studies — aiming to take advantage of the lack of interference on the moon’s far side.

The rover would also conduct mineral and radiation tests, the China National Space Administration said.

“It’s a very good start,” said Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar exploration programme, in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV. “We are now building China into an aerospace power.”

Space dominance

Beijing is planning to send another lunar lander, Chang’e-5, later this 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.

The People’s Liberation Army “looks at space as a new strategic high ground”, said Michael Raska, who studies security and defence issues at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

An enhanced presence in space will be vital for “anything for early warning, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting... nearly every military mission out there is relying on some sort of space capability”.

This handout picture taken by the Chang’e-4 probe and released by China National Space Administration on Thursday shows an image of the ‘dark side’ of the moon. A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon in a global first that boosts Beijing’s ambitions to become a space superpower.—AFP
This handout picture taken by the Chang’e-4 probe and released by China National Space Administration on Thursday shows an image of the ‘dark side’ of the moon. A Chinese lunar rover landed on the far side of the moon in a global first that boosts Beijing’s ambitions to become a space superpower.—AFP

But China’s aerospace industry still had a long way to go, especially compared to that of the US, said Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international studies scholar.

“Armstrong landed on the moon more than 50 years ago. Chinese people still have not landed on the moon even today.”

Extreme challenges

It was not until 1959 that the Soviet Union captured the first images of the moon’s mysterious and heavily cratered “dark side”.

No lander or rover has ever previously touched the surface there, and it is no easy technological feat. China has been preparing for this moment for years.

A major challenge for the mission was communicating with the robotic lander as there is no direct “line of sight” for signals to the far side of the moon.

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.

In another extreme hurdle, during the lunar night — which lasts 14 Earth days — temperatures drop to as low as minus 173 degrees Celsius. During the lunar day, also lasting 14 Earth days, temperatures soar as high as 127 C.

Adding to the difficulties, Chang’e-4 was sent to the Aitken Basin in the lunar south pole region — known for its craggy and complex terrain.

China’s previous moon rover Yutu also 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.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2019

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