China became the first country to make a successful soft-landing on the far side of the moon this week. The Chang’e 4 spacecraft touched down in Von Kármán crater at 8:26 p.m. CST on Jan. 2 (Jan. 3 Beijing time). Chang’e 4 entered orbit on Dec. 8 but had to wait for the sun to rise at the landing site. Mission control used the time to check and run tests on the craft. The landing was “smooth” and “precise” according to the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA).
Hours later, the Jade Rabbit-2 lunar rover rolled down a ramp and began a first survey of its surroundings. The six-wheeled rover is 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and about 3.3 feet (1 meter) wide and tall and sports two foldable solar panels which it will use to power itself during the coming days. Sunshine there is intense at the moment because the far side is currently in full moon phase. Lunar phases on the near side are opposite to those on the far side — for us back on Earth the moon is just one day from new.
Chang’e 4 will stay in touch with Earth through a relay satellite at the L2 Earth-Moon Langrange point, a stable orbital “parking spot” 37,300 miles (60,000 km) beyond the moon that looks down on the far side. The first photos taken by the lander show a crunchy, dusty regolith (lunar soil) and a small crater not far from the lander that adds a scenic dimension to the view. The color in the photos should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s overly yellow-brown — the moon’s true color is closer to gray.
Nice little explainer and simulation of the far side landing
Jade Rabbit-2 has a panoramic camera that can swivel 360°, so we should be seeing some sweet imagery soon. It’s also equipped with ground-penetrating radar to probe many feet below the surface. Both rover and lander have spectrographs for measuring the composition of the lunar soil and trace gases in the moon’s near-vacuum atmosphere. Another instrument will examine how the solar wind — the continuous stream of particles from the sun — interacts with the regolith.
Tucked inside the lander is a box with a sealed “biosphere” filled with seeds and insect eggs to test whether the two can sprout, hatch and grow together. A tiny camera will record the progress of the mini ecosystem, the purpose of which is to see if a closed life support system can thrive on an extended mission to space.
According to the CNSA, the Yutu-2 rover and lander will experience extremely high temperatures during the next few days and will have to placed in “napping” mode. Remember, it’s full moon there right now with a high sun and extreme temperatures. Operations will resume next Thursday when the sun drops lower in the lunar sky. For occasional Twitter updates click #Change4 or @Echinanews.
Future moon landings will include a Chang’e 6 sample return mission in 2019 to gather 4.4 pounds (2 kg) of lunar dust and rocks from near Mons Rümker, a massive volcanic dome on the near side. The ultimate objective is to land Chinese astronauts called taikonauts on the moon sometime between 2025 and 2030.