One half of the moon always faces away from Earth, because it is close enough to have become locked in position by our planet’s gravitational field. It has fascinated mankind for centuries, with astronomers, scientists, and conspiracy theorists wondering what lies beyond what we can see. Popularly known as the ‘dark side’ of the moon, more accurately it should simply be called the far side, as it receives sunlight.
Back in 1959, the USSR’s unmanned Luna 3 took the first photograph of the far side of the Moon, yet no space agency has yet landed a rover there.
The China National Space Administration has already launched their mission with a rover expected to land in the vast and unexplored South Pole-Aitken basin early in 2019, specifically the Von Kármán crater.
The far side of the moon is believed to be of a different chemical makeup than the side humans have already visited, and may yield exciting insights into what materials the moon might be hiding. Beyond that, going to the far side of moon is a huge milestone for space exploration, and achieving the mission will signal the end of an era where mankind was limited to our nearest satellite.
From this unique vantage point, the electromagnetic noise from terrestrial broadcasts are almost entirely blocked out, making it a prime spot from which to perform radio astronomy and learn more about what lies beyond our own solar system.
Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, the Chang’e-4 mission aims to send a rover to the dark side of the moon, leaving behind seeds and insect eggs, which may lead to the first life ever developing on the moon. The landing site is important, as it is a large impact crater eight miles deep. This means there may be rocks from the moon’s crust or even the moon’s mantle, which may not be found on the surface anywhere else.
This mission will be difficult as the moon itself will block most of the communications between China and the probe. China launched a relay satellite called Queqiao to compensate for this, showing the level of investment their space agency has made just for this one endeavour. The satellite is just the first part of China’s plan to implement interplanetary infrastructure that will provide a basis for further exploration and colonisation. Between the rover and other equipment, the project will be sending over a tonne of technology to the moon.
Instruments onboard the lander and rover will allow study of the local lunar geology, probe the moon’s interior, and analyse the solar wind – the stream of high-energy particles that come flooding out of the sun. One onboard experiment will test how well plants grow in weaker gravity.
The rover will collect rocks, exploring the surface composition to determine if it is different to the other side. It’s predicted that this project will unearth new insights into how the moon was formed, and may provide deeper understanding into the composition of our own planet.
The mission will be followed by two others, which are planned to return physical samples of rock from the far side back to Earth for study.
The project highlights just how interested China and other countries are in establishing a foothold on the moon. The general spirit seems to be one of competition, not cooperation, since in 2011, Congress enacted legislation forbidding NASA from any bilateral coordination with China.
As more and more commercial entities are working towards space travel and eventual colonisation, perhaps the coming decades will see space agencies abandon national differences, and work together to achieve their goals for the good of mankind as a whole.