China has successfully placed its Chang’e-4 spacecraft onto the surface of the far side of the Moon. It appears that the rover has also been released. This is the first time that any spacecraft has landed on the lunar far side.
Chang’e-4 was launched on 8 December 2018 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province. The landing site is in the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin. The basin was likely formed by a giant asteroid impact that might have brought material from the moon’s upper mantle to the surface; studying samples taken there might offer scientists the chance to learn more about the composition of the body’s interior. The moon’s far side has a much thicker, older crust and is pockmarked by more and deeper craters than the near side, where large dark plains called maria, formed by ancient lava flows, have erased much of the cratering. Chang’e-4’s observations could give clues to the processes behind the differences.
And there are also instruments to carry out astronomical, solar, and biological research:
The lander carries cameras for observations of the terrain and a low-frequency spectrometer to study solar bursts. The rover has a panoramic camera, a spectrometer for identifying surface materials, and a ground-penetrating radar to probe subsurface structures. Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Saudi Arabia contributed payloads that will measure radiation and use low-frequency radio astronomy to listen for faint signals lingering in the cosmos since the formation of the universe’s first stars, among other things. The lander also carries a minuscule biosphere developed by Chinese universities that will study the low-gravity interaction of a number of plants and silkworms.
This video shows various aspects of the Chang’e’4 mission with a mix of animations and real imagery:
The lander has a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) that will provide power for a mission that aims to last at least three months. A RTG is needed to keep the lander alive and active during the 2-week long cold nights when no solar power is available.
China has been in the news a lot lately, mostly about trade tariffs and their expansion in the South China Sea. But in addition to the country’s growing economic power and international influence, it has also made some very impressive strides in terms of its space program. With us today is Blaine Curcio, the founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting. He discusses China’s development of the Long March rocket family, the deployment of the first space station, the Chinese lunar exploration program and the
Belt and Road Spatial Information Corridor, a significant space initiative that, among other things, plans to have a global GPS available by 2020. He explains the difference between the meritocratic nature of the U.S. space industry versus China’s incumbent advantage, as well as the “Elon Musk” factor in China’s space industry.
Note that the long-standing cliche criticism of space – “We should spend money on the poor instead of space” – is not supported by the Chinese experience. Absolute poverty there has dropped from about 85% of the population in the mid-1980s, when the economy was transformed from socialism into a mostly free market structure, to around 5% today. They did that with a space program growing in parallel. So the two things are clearly not in conflict.
The Chinese derelict Tiangong-1 space station will soon hit Earth’s atmosphere as it makes an unpowered, uncontrolled reentry. Much of it will be burnt up but some of the 9 tonne spacecraft will reach the ground (or more likely, the ocean waves). The current estimate is that the station will meet its doom sometime on April 1st (and that’s no joke).
It’s unclear how much of Tiangong-1 will survive the journey, but it’s possible some pieces will fall to the ground. The station has an orbital inclination between 43 degrees north and 43 degrees south latitudes, so it could fall anywhere within those bands. But experts point out that Tiangong-1 is much smaller than the NASA Skylab space station, parts of which crashed into remote areas of Australia in 1979, so most of it may burn up during re-entry. Tiangong-1 weighs only 8.5 metric tons (9.4 tons), compared to Skylab’s 100 tons.