- China recently landed the first space mission on the far side of the moon.
- The mission, called Chang’e 4, was sent to probe the moon’s geology, seek out water, study the night sky, and even grow silkworms on the lunar surface.
- The mission’s landing spacecraft and Yutu 2 rover recently woke up from a “noon nap,” which protected them from searing-hot temperatures.
- The lander took a 360-degree picture of the landing site after waking up on Friday.
China has released a detailed panoramic image taken by the first spacecraft to land on the half of the moon we can’t see from Earth.
The mission, called Chang’e 4, touched down on the moon’s far side (“dark side” is a misnomer) on January 3. The car-size lander and a desk-size rover it deployed, called Yutu 2, are designed to probe the region over the next six months.
Shortly after the lander and the rover began their work, however, the China National Space Administration put them into a planned three-day “noon nap,” as Space News reported. This helped them survive the equivalent of high noon on the moon, when lunar surface temperatures can exceed a scorching 240 degrees Fahrenheit and risk overheating and damaging the spacecraft.
The noon nap ended on Thursday, and both spacecraft “were in stable condition” as of Friday, the CNSA said on its website, allowing the Chang’e 4 mission to resume in earnest.
One of the first tasks performed by the lander was photographing the landing site on Friday morning. The CNSA stitched the images together into a 360-degree panorama and released two depictions.
The picture at the top of this story is known as an orthographic projection. It stretches some parts of a panorama and shrinks others to create a single, fish-eye-lens-like image.
The horizontal image above is a cylindrical projection, which is essentially a 360-degree image cut at one point and flattened. (Download the full-resolution picture here.)
The cylindrical projection was the most detailed of the images released by China and shows the topography of the landscape. It’s also clearest image yet of the desk-size Yutu 2 rover, which is traipsing across the lunar surface near the edge of a small crater.
Scientists in China hope to use the Chang’e 4 mission to learn vital clues about the moon’s formation, scout for water ice, scan the night sky for radio signals, and even grow silkworms in a self-contained ecosystem.
The first landing on the far side of the moon
The mission is exploring a larger impact site called the Von Kármán crater, which has a diameter of about 111 miles.
The crater is inside a feature called the South Pole-Aitken basin, thought to be the site of a cataclysmic impact some 3.9 billion years ago, where deep-down material splattered and remains on the lunar surface for study.
“It’s possible this basin is so deep that it contains material from the moon’s inner mantle,” Tamela Maciel, an astrophysicist and communications manager at the National Space Center in Leicester, England, tweeted after the mission’s launch on December 7. “By landing on the far side for the first time, the Chang’e-4 lander and rover will help us understand so much more about the moon’s formation and history.”
The mission will again have to take a nap around January 21, when there will be a full moon and a lunar eclipse (colorfully known as a “super blood wolf moon“) on the near side facing Earth. This means the far side will be completely dark and temperatures may dip to -290 degrees F, creating another danger for the spacecraft to survive.
The mission was named after Chang’e, a mythical lunar goddess, while the 4 indicates this is the fourth robotic mission in China’s decadelong lunar space-exploration program.
No country or space agency, including Russia and NASA, had ever made a soft landing on the far side of the moon until China did with Chang’e 4 on January 3.