China successfully launched a landmark lunar mission over the weekend. The Chang’e-4 lander will attempt the world’s first soft landing on the far side of the Moon.
An upgraded Long March 3B carrying the Chang’e-4 spacecraft launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre at 18:23 UTC on Friday 7 December (02:23 on 8 December local time). Following the launch, Chinese officials confirmed that it had successfully entered a trans-lunar injection and was on its way to the Moon.
Operating equipment on the far side of the moon is challenging which is why few have ever attempted it. The main stumbling block is communication. The far side of the moon never faces Earth and, as a result, there can be no direct lines of communication. To combat communication issues, China launched the Queqiao relay satellite earlier this year. Commands will be communicated from Earth to the satellite which will then relay them on to the lander and rover on the lunar surface.
Once the Chang’e-4 lander touches down on the surface of the Moon, China will begin various scientific operations. One such operation is a biosphere housed in the lander. The small cylindrical biosphere contains, among other things, potato seeds and silkworm eggs. It is hoped that once the silkworms hatch, the biosphere will become temporarily self-sustaining.
In addition to the lander, the Chang’e-4 carries a small 1.5-meter long rover. The rover is based on the Chang’e-3 Yutu that was launched in 2013. It features four primary scientific payloads including radar measurement devices, a panoramic camera, and an infrared imaging spectrometer.
The Chang’e-4 lander is expected to touch down on the far side of the Moon on January 3, 2019. The planned landing site is inside the 180-kilometre wide Von Kármán crater in the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin.