China's Chang'e 4 performed a historic first last week, with a soft landing on the farside of the Moon.

Yutu 2
The Yutu 2 rover making tracks on the lunar farside.

China completed a first in lunar exploration on Thursday, January 3rd, as its spacecraft Chang'e 4 (named after the Moon goddess in Chinese lore) landed on the lunar farside.

The spacecraft touched down at lunar longitude 177.6°E, latitude 45.5°S in Von Kármán crater at 2:26 Universal Time (UT), as per China's University of Geosciences at Wuhan. The lander wasted no time getting straight to work, snapping images of the lunar terrain. The small Yutu 2 rover rolled down the ramp and started exploring Von Kármán crater on the same day at 14:22 UT.

The Landing

Lander Leg
An early image from Chang'e 4, showing one lander leg slightly depressed into the lunar soil.

Launched atop a Long March 3B rocket on December 7, 2018, from the Xichang Space Center in China, Chang'e 4 took several weeks to reach lunar orbit. As suspected by science writer Andrew Jones, who observes the Chinese space program (follow him on Twitter for the latest news), Chang'e 4 landed in the 112-mile- (180-km-) diameter Von Kármán crater in the South Pole Lunar Aitken Basin right around local lunar sunrise. This timing gives the solar-powered lander and Yutu rover roughly two weeks of illumination, before they both have to ride out their first long lunar night in late January. One of the first images returned at 2:26 UT showed one foot pad of the lander sinking slightly into the lunar dust, but stable.

Watch the whole landing (at 2.5 times normal speed) here:

Credit: CNSA / CLEP

With Yutu 2 successfully deployed, Chinese space officials have released video of the rover driving on the Moon and then using its wheels to turn in place. (The videos were posted on YouTube by The Planetary Society.)

Credit: CNSA / CLEP

Communicating with the Lunar Farside

The lunar farside stays perpetually turned away from Earth. Although it also displays a paucity of lunar maria and looks markedly different than the familiar nearside, no mission crewed or robotic has ever landed there. The problem is a lack of direct line-of-sight communication with the Earth. Chang'e 4 uses a dedicated relay, the Queqiao (Chinese for magpie bridge”) orbiter perched in a lissajous halo orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, 37,000 miles (60,000 kilometers) past the Moon, to communicate with Earth. (Note: though the far side doesn't face Earth, it's not necessarily turned away from the Sun — the term "dark side" is a misnomer.)

Queqiao also returned some new pictures of the Earth-Moon pair as seen from its distant vantage point recently:

Earth and Moon
The Earth and the farside of the Moon as seen from the Queqiao orbital relay.

Now, the mission will get down to business, examining its new home with a battery of scientific instruments. The larger South Pole-Aitken basin that Von Kármán crater is embedded within is thought to be a section of exposed lunar mantle. Sampling this region could reveal information about the formation and structure of the Moon. The lander also carries plant seeds, yeast and fruit flies in a tiny enclosed experiment, to see how they fare growing on the Moon. In addition, Chang'e 4 will carry out radio astronomy observations from the radio-quiet lunar farside. Thanks to the mission's open data policy, the data collected will be shared with scientists all over the world.

Von Karman
Chang'e 4's new home inside Von Karman crater.

What's Next for China on the Moon

Chang'e 4 is a follow-on and virtual copy of the successful Chang'e 3 mission, which landed in the Mare Imbrium in December 2013. China's next stated goal in lunar exploration is a sample return mission. The heavier Chang'e 5 lander and sample return capsule should launch later in 2019. However, before it can take to the skies, it will need to await a return to flight for China's Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket, which suffered a first-stage failure on its second flight in mid-2017. China practiced key maneuvers for the future mission — including high-speed skip reentry on a lunar free-return orbit as well as capsule return — with Chang'e 5T1, which returned a test capsule to Inner Mongolia in 2014.

Congrats to China on an amazing first, with more exciting lunar science to come!

Editor's Note (January 15, 2019): This story was updated to add videos from the China National Space Administration of Chang'e 4's landing and Yutu 2 driving on the farside of the Moon.

Editor's Note (January 14, 2019): This story was updated to show that the student experiment capsule is carrying plant seeds, fruit flies, and yeast, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua.


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Anthony Barreiro

January 7, 2019 at 3:05 pm

Two thoughts:

I'm happy to hear that the Chang'e 4 mission includes radio astronomy. The lunar far side is an ideal place to observe the radio universe without interference from terrestrial transmissions. I hope a permanent radio telescope will be established on the far side.

US law forbids any collaboration with the Chinese space program. So there have never been any Chinese taikonauts on the International Space Station. The US ban seems to have inspired China to develop a robust independent space program. I think the US in particular and humanity in general would be better served by welcoming China into the community of spacefaring nations. China's policy of sharing their findings with the international scientific community is a significant act of good will.

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Eric Rachut

January 12, 2019 at 9:56 am

Unfortunately the (mainland) Chinese have a bad habit of stealing intellectual property. That's why the US does not want them to have access to our space/military program.

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Pat Kittle

January 13, 2019 at 10:46 pm

Are you implying the US does NOT have that "bad habit"?

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Anthony Barreiro

January 18, 2019 at 7:49 pm

Tex, protecting intellectual property is an important concern. But just about every large US technology company, including most that have government contracts, manufactures equipment in China, and China is becoming an increasingly important market for US technology. So China has plenty of other opportunities. I believe a space program cooperation agreement could be crafted that would adequately protect US intellectual property. If the US could cooperate with the Soviet Union and now with Russia, surely we can cooperate with China. The real barrier is a congress where right-wing ideological extremists have an effective veto over reasonable policies that would serve the interests of both the United States and the whole world.

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