BEIJING (NYTIMES) - China reached a milestone in space exploration on Thursday (Jan 3), landing a vehicle on the far side of the moon for the first time in history, state media announced.
The landing of the probe, called Chang’e-4 after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology, is one in a coming series of missions that underscore the country’s ambitions to join — and even lead — the space race.
China landed another rover on the moon in 2013, joining the United States and the Soviet Union as the only nations to have carried out a “soft landing” there, but the Chang’e-4 is the first to touch down on the side of the moon that perpetually faces away from the Earth.
"This space mission shows that China has reached the advanced world-class level in deep space exploration," said Professor Zhu Menghua of the Macau University of Science and Technology.
"We Chinese people have done something that the Americans have not dared try."
Although a latecomer by decades to space exploration, China is quickly catching up, experts say, and could challenge the United States for supremacy in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other fields.
China plans to begin fully operating its third space station by 2022, to put astronauts in a lunar base by later in that decade, and to send probes to Mars, including ones that could return samples of the Martian surface back to Earth.
The crater where the Chinese were to land is the oldest and deepest on the moon, so the probe's discoveries could offer insights into the moon's origins and evolution. And some scientists suspect that the surrounding basin may be rich in minerals. If exploiting the moon's resources is the next step in space development, a successful mission could leave the Chinese better positioned.
“This is a major achievement technically and symbolically,” said Dr Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst who wrote about space for the Defence Department’s Minerva Research Institute.
“China views this landing as just a stepping stone, as it also views its future manned lunar landing, since its long-term goal is to colonise the moon and use it as a vast supply of energy.”
The place the probe is exploring, Dr Goswami said, could become a future refuelling base for missions deeper into space in the way “navies viewed coaling stations, for purposes of refuelling and resupply”.
The Chang'e-4 was launched from Xichang, in south-western China, on Dec 8 and it glided into a final, lower orbit around the moon on Sunday, 22 days later.
It landed in the Von Kármán, a flat feature about 177km wide that sits inside a larger basin near the moon's south pole. The main lander will release a 136kg rover that, barring mishap, will roam the crater. (The rover’s name, the subject of a public contest and vote, has not yet been revealed.)
The instruments aboard the lander and the rover include cameras, ground-penetrating radar and spectrometers to help identify the composition of the area, which was formed by a meteorite. Scientists hope the rocks and dirt in the area will add to the understanding of the moon’s geology.
The lander will also conduct a biology experiment to see if plant seeds will germinate and silkworm eggs will hatch in the moon’s low gravity.
Since the moon prevents direct communications from the far side, China launched a satellite to act as a relay, allowing the rover to bounce signals off it first before they continue back to earth-bound scientists.
China’s first lunar lander, the Chang’e-3, completed a journey to the near side of the moon five years ago. Its rover was plagued with problems, though. Within a month, the rover stopped moving after zigzagging about 110m, though it continued intermittently to transmit photographs and other information, according to Chinese officials, until March 2015.