China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon

The Chang’e-4 lander and rover will be the first to explore this lunar territory

China’s Chang’e-4 lunar probe gives a rare glimpse of the farside of the moon.

Xinhua/Xinhua via Getty Images

For the first time ever, there is a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. China recently installed a lander and rover there. The spacecraft is part of the Chang’e (pronounced CHONG-uh) space missions. This series has been named for the Chinese goddess of the moon.

The spacecraft touched down at 9:26 p.m. Eastern time on January 2. A few hours later, a small rover rolled off the craft. Called Yutu 2, or Jade Rabbit 2, it will explore the area around the Von Kármán crater. This site is 186 kilometers (115 miles) wide and is located inside the South Pole-Aitken basin. At 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) wide, this basin is one of the largest and oldest impact features in the solar system. It may even contain exposed parts of the moon’s interior. If true, that might reveal details of how the moon formed and what its early history was like.

The landing and other aspects of the mission went without a hitch. The China National Space Administration described this in an online statement.

The mission of Chang’e-4 is to study the moon’s terrain. To do this, the lander will use ground-penetrating radar. It can get information from just below the lunar surface. The rover also will take panoramic images of a landscape that has never been seen from the ground before.

Measurements by the craft could help establish the safety of human travel to the moon. One instrument, for instance, will record charged particles and radiation.

The lander will even test whether plants and insects can grow together on the moon. Apparently, cotton seeds had sprouted. They died shortly afterward, however, during the frigid lunar night.

Getting data back to Earth has been a bit tricky. The moon always shows its same face to Earth. So it is impossible to communicate directly with a spacecraft on the far side. To fix that problem, scientists launched a relay satellite last May. Named Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, it will beam signals between Chang’e-4 and Earth.

This mission marks China’s second lunar landing. It is a step toward more challenging moon missions. Later this year, China’s space agency plans to send up another craft to collect and bring back samples of moon rock from the moon’s far side.

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China’s Chang’e-4 view of the moon after the spacecraft landed.
Xinhua/Xinhua via Getty Images

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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