China is planning the first-ever landing on the far side of the Moon

China is planning the first-ever landing on the far side of the Moon

China is working on plans to land a probe and a rover on the far side of the Moon, according to a chief engineer on the country’s Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). No such mission has ever been attempted before.

Chief lunar exploration engineer Wu Weiren recently told China Central Television (CCTV) that the Chang’e-4 probe, a backup for the successful Chang’e-3 mission launched in late 2013, would be technically very ambitious:

“We are currently discussing the next moon landing site for Chang’e 4. We probably will choose a site that is more difficult to land and more technically challenging. Other countries have chosen to land on the near side of the moon. Our next move probably will see some spacecraft land on the far side of the moon.”

Wu added that in-depth feasibility studies were underway with the intention of assigning new missions and mandates to Chang’e-4. The Chang’e-3 lander and its now stricken Yutu (or ‘Jade Rabbit’) rover have already contributed to our understanding of the Moon, and are still operating on Moon’s Mare Imbrium.

Wu’s statement follows words from Ye Peijian, a designer and commander of the country’s lunar program, who in March hinted that Chang’e-4 would not repeat the accomplishments of Chang’e-3, but likely attempt a ‘more difficult’ landing somewhere on that Moon’s surface (link), sparking speculation of a possible far side mission.

As well as earning China a prestigious ‘first’ in space exploration – something that the country’s leaders would be keen to exploit – a successful far side lunar landing would demonstrate extraordinary technical prowess. At the same time, it could also be of immense scientific value.

A large chunk of the Moon’s far side is covered by the South Pole–Aitken basin, a huge impact crater and one of the largest such basins in the solar system. The site may include lunar mantle excavated by the impact that formed it and thus offer unique insights into the interior of the Moon, what is made of, and how it formed.

The basin was a highly recommended area for exploration in the 2013-2022 Decadal Survey, a publication created by NASA and its partners which identifies key questions facing planetary science and recommends priorities for the ten years ahead. NASA recently released a video of the far side, using images from its Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter.

Although landing something on the far side will be challenging, China’s lunar program does have a few pieces in place. In October last year an experimental around-the-Moon-and-back mission lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province.

Ahead of Chang’e-5, China will enter the final chapter of its three-stage ‘around, down and return’ lunar program, with Chang’e-5 set to blast off in 2017 with the aim of collecting lunar samples and returning them to Earth.

As the pre-designated back-up to Chang’e-3, Chang’e-4 will remain named as such despite launching after Chang’e-5.

The Chang’e-5 mission will be launched by a new Long March 5 rocket, which will be China’s largest rocket once operational. Chang’e-5 will blast off from newly completed launch center on the southern island province of Hainan.

The exploration ambitions of the Chinese space program do not end with our nearest neighbor. Around 2020 China will launch a mission to Mars, and is set to include an orbiter and lander. A Martian sample return mission has been mooted for 2030.

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Eric Write head editor and chief at The Pluto Daily