A long-range rocket launched Saturday morning (local time) from the Xichang spaceport with the moon rover „Chang’e 4“ toward the Earth’s satellite, Xinhua News Agency reported. With a successful mission, China would become the first space nation to land on the far side of the Moon.
The world premiere is part of Beijing’s ambitious space program. This will open „a new chapter in the exploration of the moon,“ Xinhua said after launching the rocket at 2:23 pm (local time, 19:23 GMT). „Chang’e 4“ is said to reach the back of the moon around New Year’s Day.
Head of Mission He Rongwei described the launch of the probe as a historic event. It was the first attempt in space history to land a moon rover for reconnaissance on the back of the moon. The mission was „the most significant space research project in 2018“.
US expert Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center also spoke of a milestone for China’s space program. He emphasized that China is doing something here that no other nations have tackled so far.
The probe is to explore the untouched terrain on the lunar side of the moon and carry out scientific experiments. Among other things, research on minerals and the cultivation of potatoes and other plants are planned. One of the experiments will involve the use of a radiation measuring device developed by scientists from Kiel University.
Landing is likely to be difficult: while the Earth’s side of the Moon has many flat landing spots, the back of the Earth’s satellite is much rugged and mountainous. In 1959, the Soviet Union succeeded in capturing the first pictures of the back and thus at least partially unraveling the mystery surrounding the „dark side of the moon“.
The probe must operate under harsh conditions after landing. During the moonlight, which corresponds to 14 days on Earth, temperatures drop to minus 173 degrees Celsius. During the lunar day, which also lasts 14 days on Earth, it gets up to 127 degrees warm. The instruments must withstand these fluctuations and, during the bright time, recharge enough energy to survive the dark times.
The spacecraft of the Chinese lunar program are named after the moon goddess Chang’e from Chinese mythology. „Chang’e 4“ is the second Chinese lunar probe after the mission „Yutu“ (Jade Rabbit) of 2013.
„Yutu“ had withstood the difficult conditions on the moon. After initial problems, the probe examined the moon for 31 months. The success of the „Yutu“ mission had given a powerful boost to the Chinese space program. In the coming year, the launch of another probe, „Chang’e 5“, is planned. She should collect samples and bring them back to earth.
China has other ambitious space goals: By 2021, Beijing wants to develop a reusable launcher capable of carrying more cargo than Nasa and the private space company SpaceX. In addition, China plans a base on the moon, a manned space station and a Mars vehicle.
„Chang’e-4“ is a significant intermediate step for Beijing’s future lunar projects, said US expert McDowell. China will gather important technological insights during the mission to someday send people to the moon. (Afp)