China is starting the new year off with a bang. Its growing space program achieved a first yesterday: a landing on the so-called dark side of the moon.
Three nations—the United States, the former Soviet Union, and more recently China—have sent spacecraft to the near side of the moon. This is the first-ever far side landing.
The moon’s far side is sometimes called the “dark side” because it faces away from Earth and is relatively unknown. It has a different composition than the near side, where all previous missions have touched down.
The China National Space Administration says its Chang’e 4 craft has “opened up a new chapter in human lunar exploration.” Chang’e 4 will make observations and probe the terrain above and below the surface.
A photo sent back by Chang’e 4 shows a small crater and a barren exterior that appears to be illuminated by the lunar explorer.
The landing highlights China’s growing ambitions to rival the United States, Russia, and Europe in space, and to cement the nation’s position as a global power. “On the whole, China’s space technology still lags behind the West, but with the landing on the far side of the moon, we have raced to the front,” says Hou Xiyun, a professor at Nanjing University’s school of astronomy and space science.
The United States is still the only country that has successfully sent a person to the moon, though China is considering a crewed mission too. For now, it plans to send a Chang’e 5 probe to the moon next year and have it return to Earth with samples. There are also plans to visit Mars, Jupiter, and asteroids.
Hou says, “There’s no doubt that our nation will go farther and farther.”
Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! — Psalm 139:7-8
(The first image of the moon’s far side taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe. China National Space Administration/Xinhua News Agency via AP)