Back in January, the Chang’e-4 lander touched down gently on the far side of the Moon, making China the first nation to land on the side of the Moon that we never see.
Contrary to popular belief, the dark side of the Moon isn’t always dark, but it is permanently pointed away from Earth. That’s because the Moon spins and revolves around Earth at around the same rate, or once roughly every 27 days. The Moon is said to be tidally locked, and so, to observers on earth, it looks like the Moon never turns.
Mankind has technically caught a glimpse of the far side of the Moon before. In 1968, astronaut Bill Anders was able to describe the new terrain as the Apollo spacecraft skimmed over the surface. And in 1959, the Soviet space probe Luna 3 managed to take pictures of the cratered lunar landscape. But no one has actually landed there, until the Chang’e 4 lander and its Jade Rabbit 2 rover.
Much of that is due to how difficult it is for robots to transmit radio signals back to Earth when on the far side of the moon. After all, when you have the entire body of the Moon between you and Earth, things get really hard. China circumvented this by setting up a satellite called Queqiao last May, which talks to the probe and relays data, including photos, back to Earth.
China has accomplished quite the technological feat, and it’s a big win for a country that has been broadening its ambitions in space. The lander will also give China an unobstructed view of the South Pole-Aitken basin, which is thought to be an ancient crater that was the result of a huge rock slamming into the Moon billions of years ago. If scientists can determine the exact age of the basin, they could pinpoint more precisely when the impact occurred and uncover more clues about the early Solar System.
However, even if the lander probably won’t be able to do that on its own, its rover can still send back data on the composition and structure of rocks in this unexplored area of the Moon. In addition, the lander itself will collect data on the sky. When night descends on the far side of the Moon, the lander that is named after the Chinese moon goddess will have a view of the stars that is unclouded by light from the Sun or radio signals from Earth.
PICTURE NASA/THOMAS CAMPBELL