China Reaches for the Moon

On January 3 of this year, China’s probe Chang’e-4 (aptly named after a Chinese moon goddess) landed on the far side of the moon. It is the first successful landing on that side of the moon – successful in this case meaning in one piece and fully operational. Previous missions often crashed and lost contact to Earth due to communication problems arising from signals being blocked by the moon itself.

The far side of the moon may be known to some people as the dark side of the moon due to the infamous Pink Floyd album. This name is scientifically inaccurate, but I am sure no one is shocked that Pink Floyd are not experts in astrophysics. It is called the far side, because it constantly faces away from earth and is therefore not as easily accessible as you may have noticed from the mentions of earlier failing missions. The first pictures of the far side were taken in 1959 by the soviet satellite Luna 3, but it remained a slightly mysterious territory – until now.

So, why should we care? The rover has landed in the oldest crater of the moon which means we might find out something about the moon’s origin and the history of the universe. If this seems a little abstract, it will also conduct some more practical experiments including growing plants like cotton and potato and having silk worms develop in lower gravity. These experiments could be the basis for generating resources in space. The site could also be used as a base for interstellar travel in the future. China is planning a lunar base at some point within the next decade, so this research could be the foundation for people living on the moon.

However, one might have a few doubts about these plans if their previous missions are any indication for China’s success. While one probe exploded shortly after the start, their previous rover Chang’e-3 actually made it to the moon but stopped moving after a few hundred feet of zigzagging around and was only occasionally sending pictures back (big mood honestly). This might also explain the country’s rather cautious reports about the mission on national media. Another reason for this behaviour could lie in the general secrecy about its space exploration. While NASA for example is quite open about their programmes and research, the China National Space Administration is rather closed off which has led to criticism among scientists who believe knowledge should be shared.

Overall, this moon landing could mean an amazing opportunity for science and give us fascinating insights into the workings of the universe as well as a basis for space travel. But it could also amount to nothing more than political tensions.

[Christina Schröck]

[Image credit: NASA]

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