- For the first time in history, China landed a spacecraft on the moon’s far side.
- The Chang’e-4 mission safely placed a rover and lander on the lunar surface Wednesday night (early Thursday morning in China).
- Broadly, the moon mission landed inside a crater that’s located within a large, ancient collision site called the South Pole-Aitken Basin.
- China has not been specific about precisely where its mission landed, but NASA lunar scientists may have located the exact spot.
For the first time in history, China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon – the part we never see from Earth.
The Chinese moon mission is called Chang’e 4, and it set down a robotic lander and rover at 2:26 a.m. UTC on Thursday (Wednesday night in the US), according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
“Chang’e” is the name of a mythical lunar goddess, and the numeral “4” signifies the fourth robotic mission in China’s ambitious quest to explore the moon. No other nation – the US and Russia included – has ever touched the far side of the moon.
The agency has been less forthcoming about other details of its historic mission, but amateurs have analysed radio communications while NASA lunar researchers pinpointed the rover’s precise location, helping independently confirm there was a landing.
Noah Petro, a planetary geologist, used images distributed by China on social media to pinpoint the landing site.
“Looks like Change-4 landed near 45.47084 South, 177.60563 East,” Petro, who is a project scientist on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, tweeted on Thursday.
Where the Chang’e 4 mission touched down on the moon
As the graphic above shows, those coordinates place Chang’e 4 within two impact sites that are very important to geologists and planetary scientists.
The larger of the two is the South Pole-Aitken Basin. Within that expansive site, Chang’e-4 landed inside Von Kármán Crater.
The South Pole-Aitken Basin is a 1,550-mile-wide scar made by a cataclysmic collision about 3.9 billion years ago. The smash-up may have busted all the way through the lunar crust, spewing part of the moon’s deeper-down geologic layers onto the surface.
“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 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 Von Kármán Crater within the basin stretches about 111 miles in diameter and should provide good access to the area’s scientific wonders.
Petro used images taken by Chang’e 4 during its descent toward lunar surface to deduce its landing coordinates.
The LRO spacecraft, which orbits the moon, should directly photograph the Chang’e 4 rover and lander on the lunar surface sometime at the end of the month, Petro told Business Insider.
“The spacecraft is kept safe and operational during shutdowns,” he added, referring to a partial closing of the US government that has sent home many NASA personnel (including Petro).
China built its solar-powered moon rover to last about three months and its lander to function for about a year. But once they stop phoning home – through a relay satellite called Queqiao, which makes the mission possible – China won’t stop exploring the region.
The nation is intent on launching crewed missions to the moon in the early 2030s. If that happens as planned, it could be the first time people set foot on the lunar surface since NASA’s Apollo program ended in 1972.
“Von Kármán crater would be a worthy target for future crewed landings,” Mark Robinson, a planetary geologist and leader of the LRO mission, said in a mission blog post published hours before China’s landing.
A crewed landing would give China the upper hand in exploring the moon and space around it. The stakes are high; the lunar poles are rich in water ice and other resources that could support permanent moon bases, make rocket fuel, and power deep-space exploration.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on January 3, 2019.