Will China be the first to lead a mission to the dark side of the moon?

Just a week after China launched the country’s first communication satellite for space-based broadband services, a Chinese space probe moved into position to land on the far side of the moon for the first time. Known as
Chang’e-4, the probe reportedly entered a planned orbit late Sunday, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

China launched the probe early December, carried by a Long March-3B rocket, which had also launched the first Hongyun satellite as part of a mega-communications project spearheaded by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. The Chang’e-4 first entered a lunar orbit on December 12.

Space report

Aiming “to prepare for the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon”, the state-run media reported that the probe with a help of a lander and a rover will explore the surface of the moon. But the China National Space Administration has not yet disclosed when the landing will occur.

However, according to Xinhua, the probe has entered an elliptical lunar orbit at around 6:30 AM IST. This brought the probe within 15 kilometers of the surface of the moon, its closest point so far.

Tidally locked to the earth, the moon rotates at the same rate as the blue planet while orbiting, which means that the “dark side of the moon” is never visible to earthy spectators.

According to a Reuters report, the country’s space control will select a “proper time” to land the probe on the far side of the moon. Its descent is reportedly being aided by a relay satellite called the Queqiao, also called Magpie Bridge.

What will the probe study?

The Chang’e-4 has been tasked with astronomical observation, surveillance of the moon’s topography, studying its mineral composition, and measuring the neutron radiation and neutral atoms. All this will contribute to a better understanding of the lunar environment, especially on the far side of the moon which remains restricted to human view. 

In doing so, China aims to catch up with Russia and the US to become a major space power by 2030.

Why it matters

Although this is not the first attempt to shed light on the dark side of the moon, all previous expeditions have only seen it without ever landing on it. The Chang’e-4 mission is being regarded as a seminal step for the country to propel its space programme forward, and to establish itself in the sector.

The Asian nation already leads many western superpowers in economy and manufacturing and has been planning rapid expansion in science, technology . Beijing is also planning to inaugurate its own manned space station next year. This has sparked caution especially from US which has already accused China’s recent of threatening peace and security in the region and ultimately aimed at inhibited space-based assets of other countries.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius