China has landed a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon in a world first, according to state-run media. The unmanned Chang’e-4 lander and rover successfully arrived in the Von Karman crater, which is within the South Pole-Aitken Basin, at 10:26 a.m. Beijing time on Thursday, according to Chinese broadcaster CGTN.
After it touched down, the spacecraft took the first photo of what is widely known as the “dark side” of the Moon, and sent it back to Earth via the Queqiao (Magpie Bridge) satellite. The satellite which launched last May is orbiting the second Lagrangian point of the Earth-Moon system.
— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) January 3, 2019
Now it has landed, the Chang’e-4 is tasked with collecting data on the far side of the Moon, including on the structure of its surface, mantle, as well as its minerals, according to CGTN. It will also carry out low-frequency astronomical observations because it is shielded from radio interference.
The Aitken Basin where Chang’e-4 is located measures 2,500 kilometers in diameter and is 13 kilometers deep, making it the “largest, deepest and oldest basin on the Moon” and “one of the largest impact craters in the Solar System,” Andrew Coates, professor of physics at UCL, London, told BBC News.
The China National Space Administration agency launched Chang’e-4 in December from its center in Xichang, southwest China.
Landing the vessel, named after Chang’e, the goddess of the Moon in Chinese mythology, was no easy feat. While the near side of the Moon is dotted with flat areas which spacecraft can land on with relative ease, the far side is covered in craters.
In addition, this part of the Moon is not visible from Earth due to a phenomenon known as tidal locking. This occurs because it takes the Moon 28 days to orbit the Earth, and 28 days to spin once on its axis, meaning the same side always faces our planet. As it is not possible to shoot signals to the far side of the Moon, China launched the Queqiao satellite so it could provide a point of contact for Chang’e-4.
On top of that, Chinese scientists had to create a rover which could work in extreme temperatures. At the height of day, temperatures can hit around 260 dehrees Fahrenheit, but plummet to around -280 Fahrenheit at night.
Ye Quanzhi, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, told BBC News that the mission marked the first time China had “attempted something that other space powers have not attempted before.”
The project is the latest chapter in Beijing’s billion-dollar space program. It comes after the launch of the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover in 2013 as part of the Chang’e-3 lander mission. It spent 31 months exploring the Moon, and discovered evidence of ancient lava plains beneath the satellite’s crust, New Scientist reported.
China also has ambitions to have a manned space station by 2022. Yang Liwei, Deputy Director of China’s Manned Space Agency, said in March 2018 that the separate parts of the T-shaped station will be launched and assembled in orbit, according to SpaceTechAsia.
This article has been updated with background information.