After a 110-hour journey to the moon, China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft entered lunar orbit on December 12, reports Space News.
The probe fired its single main variable thruster at a distance of 80 miles from the lunar surface and successfully braked to arrive in an elliptical polar orbit around the moon at 3:45 a.m. EST on Wednesday morning. The orbit’s closest point to the moon, also known as a perilune, will bring the spacecraft as close as 62 miles from the moon’s cratered surface.
Representatives from the Chang’e program, officially called the China Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP), announced that the braking maneuver had been successful within minutes after the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center (BACC) instructed the spacecraft to fire its thruster.
According to the media outlet, the announcement stated that the Chang’e 4 spacecraft was in good health. Interestingly enough, the spacecraft only performed a single trajectory correction maneuver to prepare for transfer into lunar orbit. Although the CLEP had originally scheduled three such maneuvers, in the end only one was necessary and was carried out on December 9.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the Chinese spacecraft is carrying the Chang’e 4 lander and rover, destined to touch down on the moon sometime next month. If everything goes as planned, this will be the world’s first robotic mission to land on the dark side of the moon — the side that always faces away from Earth.
While the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has remained tight-lipped about the landing date and the targeted landing site, sources from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) revealed that the highly anticipated touchdown will occur in the first days of January, per Space News. The CASC is the main contractor for the Chinese space program.
The Chang’e 4 spacecraft is expected to land somewhere inside the 116-mile-wide Von Karman Crater within the giant South Pole‐Aitken Basin. At 1,550 miles wide and 7.5 miles deep, this ancient basin is the largest known impact structure in the entire solar system and the oldest one on the moon.
The basin is considered to contain exposed material from the moon’s upper mantle, making it the ideal place to study the history and evolution of Earth’s natural satellite, the Inquisitr reported earlier this year, when the possible destination of the Chang’e 4 mission was first made public.
Launched on December 7 atop a Long March 3B rocket, the Chinese lander and rover will explore the surface of Von Karman Crater in an attempt to study its mineralogy and image the structure of the lunar soil layers, as well as any subsurface lava flow units. The mission will relay its data via the Queqiao satellite, which took to space nearly six months ago and is currently engaged in a halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the Earth-moon system, some 40,000 miles behind the moon, per a previous report from the Inquisitr.
Next up for the Chang’e 4 spacecraft is a series of preparations that will allow it to refine its orbit and establish communications with the Queqiao relay satellite. This pioneering mission comes after China already succeeded in putting a rover on the near side of the moon during the Chang’e 3 mission in 2013.
The CNSA is already making plans for a fifth and sixth Chang’e mission. Slated to launch in late 2019 atop a Long March 5 rocket, Chang’e 5 is designed to collect lunar samples. The samples will be returned to Earth by the Chang’e 6 mission in the early 2020s.