A Chinese spacecraft launched Saturday, carrying a probe set to make the first-ever soft-landing on the far side of the Moon, according to NPR. The Chang’e-4 mission will bring a lander and rover to the Von Kármán crater.
Sometimes called the “dark side of the Moon,” the far side actually sees as much sunlight as the side facing Earth, but remains pointed away from Earth’s view, since the Moon takes the same amount of time to rotate on its axis that it does to orbit Earth.
As a result, exploration on this side of the Moon entails additional challenges, since direct communication will be blocked. China is launching a relay satellite in May to stay in contact with the probe, which is set to land in January.
China’s National Space Administration told Xinhua:
“The scientific tasks of the Chang’e-4 mission include low-frequency radio astronomical observation, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring the neutron radiation and neutral atoms to study the environment on the far side of the moon.”
In general, the Moon’s far side has a thicker and older crust, with more craters.
The moon will shield the probe from electromagnetic interference from earth, allowing data to be collected that could not be gathered from Earth.
Scientists want to investigate the Von Kármán crater, which is located within the largest and oldest impact feature on the surface, the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which scientists believe was the result of a massive asteroid crash billions of years ago. This impact may have penetrated the Moon’s crust to reach the mantle layer, and the Chang’e-4 probe may be able to determine if this occurred.
It will also carry a “lunar mini biosphere” experiment designed by 28 Chinese universities, including potato and arabidopsis plants.
“We want to study the respiration of the seeds and the photosynthesis on the Moon,” according to Chongqing University vice president Liu Hanlong.
Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer, explained:
“We have to keep the temperature in the ‘mini biosphere’ within a range from 1 degree to 30 degrees, and properly control the humidity and nutrition. We will use a tube to direct the natural light on the surface of Moon into the tin to make the plants grow.”
The spacecraft launched Saturday from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, aboard China’s Long March 3B rocket. If Chang’e-4 is a success, a fifth moon mission next year will bring samples of Moon rock and soil back to Earth.