At 10:26 a.m. Beijing Time on January 3 (9:26 p.m. EST on January 2), a Chinese spacecraft achieved the first soft landing on the far side of the moon in the history of mankind.
Known as the Chang’e-4 mission, this pioneering endeavor — launched by the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) — has successfully put a rover and a lander on the so-called dark side of the moon, or the hemisphere that always faces away from Earth.
Following this incredible achievement, China has now become the first nation to land a spacecraft on this uncharted part of the moon. The epic moon landing went on without difficulty — despite initial concerns that the spacecraft may have been damaged during the harrowing entry, descent, and landing sequence, as reported earlier today by the Inquisitr.
The Chang’e-4 rover-lander combo touched down inside the Von Karman Crater, imaged above by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The 116-mile-wide crater is located within the giant South Pole‐Aitken Basin — one of the largest and oldest impact features in the entire solar system, measuring more than 1,500 miles across, the Inquisitr noted in a previous report.
Soon after the news officially broke out, the state media outlet China Global Television Network (CHTN) took to Twitter to share an amazing photo described as the “world’s first close shot of moon’s far side.”
More sensational snapshots quickly followed, this time posted by China’s state-run press agency Xinhua. These images are the first to ever be taken on the lunar far side and unveil what the dark side of the moon looks like.
According to Xinhua Net, the historic Chang’e-4 landing unfolded over the course of “about 12 dramatic minutes,” with the spacecraft making an almost vertical descent toward the surface of the moon.
“We chose a vertical descent strategy to avoid the influence of the mountains on the flight track,” said Zhang He, executive director of the Chang’e-4 probe project and a scientist at the China Academy of Space Technology.
Unlike its precursor, Chang’e-3 — which landed on the near side of the moon in December of 2013, touching down in the northern part of Mare Imbrium, as previously reported by the Inquisitr — Chang’e-4 had to brave a more challenging landing site. While Chang’e-3 descended on a flat basaltic plain known as Sinus Iridum, the touchdown spot of Chang’e-4 was a rugged terrain located in the middle of a mountain chain.
“The area available for the landing is only one eighth of that for Chang’e-3, and is surrounded by mountains as high as 10 kilometers [6.2 miles],” noted Xinhua Net.
"It was a great challenge fulfilled in a short time, and with high difficulty and risks." Check out these breathtaking photos of Chinese lunar probe Chang'e-4's 12-minute landing on a crater on the far side of the moon https://t.co/hSm6uZsDcE pic.twitter.com/GeItoxhMX9— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 3, 2019
To navigate this difficult and uncharted territory, the Chang’e 4 spacecraft used hazard-avoidance software and guided itself toward the best possible landing spot, notes The Conversation.
The probe scanned the lunar terrain with a downward-looking camera and snapped a series of photos from a distance of about 1.2 miles away in order to identify large obstacles, such as rocks or craters, explained Wu Xueying, deputy chief designer of the Chang’e-4 spacecraft.
As it slowly descended toward the moon, Chang’e-4 used retrorockets to curb its velocity and then hovered some 330 miles above the lunar surface to detect smaller obstacles, such as boulders, and to measure the slopes of the terrain, said Wu.
After calculating the safest touchdown site, the spacecraft shut down its engine at a distance of 6.5 feet above the moon’s surface and stretched out its four landing legs to descend on the dark side of the moon.
The spectacular photos from China’s historic moon landing were beamed back to Earth with the help of the Queqiao relay satellite, which the CNSA sent to space on May 20 — six months ahead of the Chang’e-4 probe.
Parked in a halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the Earth-moon system, some 40,000 miles behind the moon, the satellite can see both the lunar far side and the Earth above the lunar horizon. This makes it possible for the robotic mission to communicate with ground control, given that the Chang’e-4 rover and lander can’t directly receive or transmit radio signals from the far side of the moon.
Big breakthrough: China's Chang'e-4 probe soft-landed on the moon's uncharted side never visible from Earth, getting its first image pic.twitter.com/8FEjXFmLi3— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 3, 2019
Launched on December 7 atop a Long March 3B rocket, Chang’e-4 has been orbiting the moon for the past three weeks — ever since it slipped into an elliptical polar orbit on December 12, as reported by the Inquisitr at the time.
The mission is tasked with investigating the mysterious lunar far side and aims to study both the region’s surface and subsurface. Armed with a camera, ground-penetrating radar, and an imaging spectrometer, the 300-pound, 5-foot-long Chang’e-4 rover will be trekking the lunar terrain to analyze the area’s topography and mineral composition.
Meanwhile, the stationary Chang’e-4 lander will be conducting the first radio astronomy study to ever take place on the lunar far side, where there is no interference from Earth’s ionosphere or from solar radio emissions. In addition, the lander is also equipped with a 6.6-pound sealed biosphere containing plant seeds and silkworm eggs — the first biology experiment attempted on the moon.