Chinese spacecraft to land on far side of the moon

The first spacecraft to attempt a landing on the far side of the moon is due to blast off from a launch facility in China, a historic step in lunar exploration.

The Chinese space agency’s Chang’e 4 mission aims to drop a robotic lander and rover into the moon’s vast and unexplored South Pole-Aitken basin, the largest and deepest impact crater in the solar system.

“Going to the far side of the moon is a major technological feather in the cap for China,” said Katherine Joy, a lunar scientist at the University of Manchester. “The Chinese lunar space programme is hugely ambitious.

“It’s going to a place that is really special for lunar science. The impact crater carved a huge hole in the lunar crust and possibly into the lunar mantle. It potentially unlocks rocks that we wouldn’t normally find on the surface of the moon.”

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If the moon shot goes smoothly, the probe will swing into lunar orbit, descend on thrusters and then drop the final few metres to the barren surface in the first week of January. Once the dust has settled, the lander will deploy a ramp for the onboard rover to trundle down. In all, the mission will deliver more than a tonne of hardware to the moon’s surface.

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Chinese officials have revealed few details about the probe’s precise landing site, but a study this May from researchers at the Planetary Science Institute at the China University of Geosciences described how Chang’e 4 would explore the Von Kármán crater found inside the enormous impact basin.

In targeting the side of the moon that constantly faces away from Earth, mission controllers must contend with the fact that they cannot communicate directly with the spacecraft. Instead, messages to and from Chang’e 4 will be relayed by the agency’s Queqiao satellite, which is in a “halo orbit” on the other side of the moon.

Chang’e 4 is the latest giant leap in China’s fast-moving and ambitious lunar programme. The first two Chang’e missions in 2007 and 2010 sent probes into orbit around the moon. They were followed by Chang’e 3, a lander and rover that touched down on the Mare Imbrium lava plain on the moon’s near side. For the third phase of the programme, the Chang’e 5 and 6 missions will attempt to collect lunar samples and return them to Earth. Chang’e 5 is due to launch in December next year.

Instruments onboard the lander and rover will allow them to study the local lunar geology, probe the moon’s interior, and analyse the solar wind – the stream of high-energy particles that come flooding out of the sun. One onboard experiment will test how well plants grow in the feeble lunar gravity.

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Chinese spacecraft attempts to land on far side of the moon