China announced Thursday it has become the first nation to land a robotic probe on the far side of the moon — a huge step forward for Beijing's space program.
At 10:26 am Beijing time (9:26 pm Wednesday ET) the unmanned probe, known as Chang’e 4, successfully completed a “soft landing” in the South Pole-Aitken basin, which is the largest, oldest and deepest crater on the moon’s surface and a region never before explored.
An image tweeted by China Global Television network showed the first ever close-up image of that side of Earth’s satellite.
The announcement will have come as a surprise to many in China, with state-run media keeping quiet about the mission’s outcome until it was confirmed a success. Some Chinese outlets appeared to jump the gun, with congratulatory tweets quickly deleted before the official confirmation of the landing came two hours later.
Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted his own congratulations to his Chinese compatriots soon after the landing was confirmed.
What will we learn?
The lander will now explore the crater, which is more than 1,600 miles in diameter and 8 miles deep, focusing on an area called the Von Kármán crater, which is 115 miles wide.
Chang’e 4 will conduct geological experiments to get a better understanding about the giant impact early in the moon's history that created the huge crater. The tests could help scientists better understand the structure, formation and evolution of the moon.
It will also conduct biological experiments to assess how silkworms and tomatoes grow on the moon’s surface.
Finally, it will also test a number of cameras, including a spectrometer that will perform low-frequency radio astronomy observations. Scientists believe the far side of the moon could be a perfect spot for such experiments as it is shielded from radio interference from Earth.
What are the challenges?
Because there can be no direct communications link with the far side of the moon, data and images have to be bounced off a satellite before being sent back to Earth.
China launched a relay satellite named Queqiao — or Magpie Bridge — last May, which orbits at a distance of 40,000 miles from the Moon. It uses a space phenomenon called a Lagrange point, known as a parking point in space, where it will remain visible to ground stations in China and other countries, such as Argentina.
Why is this important?
The landing is significant as it is the first effort to explore the far side of the moon and it is also the first major coup for China’s burgeoning space efforts.
Beijing, which is in a space race with the U.S. and Russia, announced in 2017 that it plans to send astronauts to the moon, and will begin building its own space station in 2020.
Shares in Chinese aerospace companies surged Thursday morning with investors buoyed by the successful landing.
Cover image: Photo provided by the China National Space Administration on Jan. 3, 2019 shows the first image of the moon's far side taken by China's Chang'e-4 probe. (Xinhua/Xinhua via Getty Images)