CHINA is launching a spacecraft today that will attempt to land on the far side of the moon, a journey no vehicle has ever made before.
The unmanned Chang’e-4 probe is scheduled to blast off at 6:30pm GMT tonight and will test the lunar surface for the ideal spot to build a human outpost.
It is loaded with instruments to track radiation levels and gather soil samples ahead of plans for a lunar base, which China hopes to assemble in the 2030s.
A separate canister filled with seeds and silkworm eggs will attempt to grow food to test whether humans could one day build small plant farms on Earth’s closest neighbour.
Launching from south-west China strapped to a Long March 3B rocket, the spacecraft is due to land on the moon’s far side around December 31.
If successful, it will mark the first time a probe has ever touched down on the dark side of the moon, a region that largely remains a mystery to scientists.
China has ramped up its space efforts over the past decade in an attempt to catch up with the likes of Russia and Nasa, and Chang’e-4 is its second lunar landing in just five years.
“Going to the far side of the moon is a major technological feather in the cap for China,” Katherine Joy, a lunar scientist at the University of Manchester, told the Guardian.
“The Chinese lunar space programme is hugely ambitious.”
The moon’s dark side permanently faces away from Earth because the rocky world is close enough to remain locked in position by our planet’s gravitational field.
Because the region never faces us, it evades even our most advanced ground telescopes, meaning little is known about the chemistry and conditions of the moon’s far side.
When it lands later this month, Chang’e-4 will drop into a vast and unexplored impact crater known as the South Pole-Aitken basin.
The huge pit measures 15,000 miles across and eight miles deep, and scientists believe it contains rocks that wouldn’t normally be found on the surface of the moon.
Chang’e-4 consists of an immobile four-footed lander and an onboard rover that will deploy via a small ramp and explore the lunar surface.
As the pair will always face away from Earth, mission control will communicate with them via a relay satellite that is orbiting the moon.
The lander is loaded with radiation-detecting instruments called low-frequency radio spectrometers.
These will scan radioactive particles in the atmosphere to learn more about the universe’s ‘dark age’ – the first few hundred million years following the Big Bang.
The Moon – our closest neighbour explained
Here’s what you need to know…
- The Moon is a natural satellite – a space-faring body that orbits a planet
- It’s Earth’s only natural satellite, and is the fifth biggest in the Solar System
- The Moon measures 2,158 miles across, roughly 0.27 times the diameter of Earth
- Temperatures on the Moon range from minus 173 degrees Celcius to 260 degrees Celcius
- Experts assumed the Moon was another planet, until Nicolaus Copernicus outlined his theory about our Solar System in 1543
- It was eventually assigned to a “class” after Galileo discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter in 1610
- The Moon is believed to have formed around 4.51billion years ago
- The strength of its gravitational field is about a sixth of Earth’s gravity
- Earth and the Moon have “synchronous rotation”, which means we always see the same side of the Moon – hence the phrase “dark side of the Moon”
- The Moon’s surface is actually dark, but appears bright in the sky due to its reflective ground
- During a solar eclipse, the Moon covers the Sun almost completely. Both objects appear a similar size in the sky because the Sun is both 400 times larger and farther
- The first spacecraft to reach the Moon was in 1959, as part of the Soviet Union’s Lunar program
- The first manned orbital mission was Nasa’s Apollo 8 in 1968
- And the first manned lunar landing was in 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 mission
A ‘biosphere’ experiment will attempt to grow plants using seeds and silkworm eggs, a setup that could be used to grow food by crews on future moon outposts.
The moon’s dark side is ideal for human settlements because it houses water in the form of ice, and German radiation detectors strapped to the lander will test how dangerous it would be for people to live there long-term.
The rover itself, which is powered by solar panels and topped with a panoramic camera, will analyse the chemical make-up of lunar rock by measuring visible and infrared light.
The Swedish-designed equipment will help scientists better understand the interaction of radiation from the sun, also known as solar wind, with the moon’s surface.
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