China launches rover for first far side of the moon landing

Author: 
Ryan MCMORROW | AFP
ID: 
1544239920587184600
Sat, 2018-12-08 03:09

BEIJING: China launched a rover early Saturday 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 center at 2:23 am (1823 GMT),
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
state-owned 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 program,
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, 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 173 degrees Celsius (minus
279 Fahrenheit). During the lunar day, also lasting 14 earth days,
temperatures soar as high as 127 C (261 F).
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 program.
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, an expert on China’s space program.
The project, he said in an interview with local website Netease,
“greatly inspires everyone’s national pride and
self-confidence.”

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China launches rover for first far side of the moon landing