At 9:26pm Eastern time on January 3, 2019, the Chinese made history with the newest triumph of their space program: they landed a craft on the moon. And not just on the moon but on the far side of the moon, the first spacecraft ever to land there.
This has been a very big deal in early 2019, and the news from the Chinese moon lander keeps rolling in. Here’s what we know so far about the moon landing and the craft itself.
The Lander Has a Poetic Name
The Chinese decided to call their craft Chang’e 4. Chang’e, the name that covers the whole Chinese lunar project, is the name of the traditional Chinese goddess of the moon. She is an important figure in Chinese mythology and has a prominent place in China’s moon festival, which happens every fall on the full moon night of the eighth lunar month. At this festival, the Chinese traditionally set up altars outside, facing the moon. The altars are generally filled with pastries, called “moon cakes.” Worshipping Chang’e is said to make people more beautiful.
The Lander Forms Part of a Much Larger Program
The Chinese have an ambitious lunar plan, which has included two moon orbiters (launched in 2007 and 2010) and a craft that landed on the near side of the moon in 2013.
In 2014, the Chinese successfully launched a return capsule called Chang’e 5T1 that went around the moon for eight days before returning to earth. 5T1 was a warm-up for a mission called Chang’e 5, which is planned to be a sample-return mission. Chang’e 5 may launch as early as late 2019.
The final piece of the program is crewed lunar missions, which would be able to staff a space station on the moon by the early 2020s.
The Lander Has a Greenhouse and Managed to Grow Cotton
One of the experiments of the Chang’e 4 lander is to see if plants can grow on the lunar surface. This experiment was the idea of a group of Chinese students who competed to submit ideas for the lander. Their mini-biosphere won the competition.
The craft was equipped with an airtight greenhouse encased in a metal cylinder. The greenhouse was kept in stasis during the voyage to the moon but was started once the craft landed. The first big victory of this experiment was the sprouting of cotton seeds. These cotton plants were the first ever grown on the moon.
The germination of the cotton seeds was a huge victory and very exciting for scientists looking to plan domes that could support life on the moon. The sprouts, however, did not grow to maturity, succumbing to the bitter cold and dying within a few days (the biosphere did not include a heater, and the lunar nighttime sees temperatures of minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit). The lander also carried potato, canola, and cress seeds, but these did not sprout.
The Main Mission of the Lander is Geological
The mini-biosphere designed by students was not the stated main goal of the Chang’e 4. The craft’s stated main objective is to study the structures and formation of the moon. For this purpose, the lander is outfitted with a landing camera, terrain camera, and panoramic camera.
In addition, the lunar lander carries a variety of spectrometers (which measure physical phenomena such as light, mass or chemical composition). Chang’e 4’s spectrometers include a low-frequency spectrometer and a visible and near-infrared spectrometer. These pieces of equipment will allow the lander to read and record the characteristics of its surroundings in great detail. It will be able to probe the composition of the surface as well as take readings on the layered structure of the geology beneath the surface. The hope is that these readings will help us understand how and why the far side of the moon is so different from the near side.
Other Nations Contributed to the Experiments on the Lander
Finally, Chang’e 4 carried two particular experiments from foreign governments: the German-designed Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry experiment (known as the LND) and an Advanced Small Analyzer for Neutrals from Sweden.
The German project aims to collect significant data on radiation and the ability to protect from radiation (to support human space exploration by learning how to protect human bodies from interstellar radiation).
The Swedish experiment is designed to measure magnetic fields and the ions from solar winds on the far side of the moon.
The far side of the moon (not the “dark” side: the far side gets as much light as the one that faces us) is undiscovered territory for Earth’s scientists. The successful landing of the Chinese craft has been praised and hailed all over the world as astronomers and physicists look forward to learning new information about Earth’s only satellite.