China Gets Down to Business on Far Side of the Moon

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) declared last week (January 11) that the Chang'e-4 mission, the world’s first soft landing on the far side of the moon, was a “complete success.” The lander touched down at the South Pole Aitken Basin site, the moon’s oldest and largest impact crater, on January 3, and devices aboard the probe collected and sent back data to earth as planned, Chinese officials reported.

The lander and its rover, Yutu-2, were able to take pictures of each other and send them back to the mission’s ground control centre via the relay satellite, Queqiao. CNSA published the first 360-degree colour panorama picture ever taken from the lunar far on January 10.

Pictures of tiny cotton plant shoots sprouting from soil in a sealed container were subsequently released January 15 – the first biological experiment on the moon’s surface, a low gravity environment, in human history. Carried among the lander’s cargo soil were cotton seeds, rapeseed, potato seeds, rock cress, yeast, and fruit fly eggs, which are supposed to form an artificial, self-sustaining ‘moon surface micro-ecological circle.’ Plants have only been grown on the International Space Station prior to this experiment.

International collaborations with scientists from different countries on this mission were noted by the CNSA. A neutron radiation detector that was used to access the landing site was developed by German scientists; Russian scientists helped in the development of a heating device that supports the spacecraft through the extreme temperature during lunar night; and, Swedish scientists helped put an atom-detecting device on the rover to study the solar wind behaviour on the moon’s surface. NASA also shared data collected by its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with its Chinese counterpart.

On January 12, CNSA unveiled at a press conference the next steps of China’s space exploration. The agency said it plans to launch the Chang’e-5 mission by the end of 2019 to bring back to Earth samples from the near side of the moon. Another plan is to launch a mission to Mars around 2020. Future lunar missions also include conducting comprehensive surveys around the South Pole of the moon, as well as setting up a science and research station on the surface.