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China is about to land a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon

December 5, 2018

If successful, Chang’e-4 will be the first lunar lander to touch the far side of Earth’s natural satellite.

Foggy on the details: The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has kept information pretty tightly under wraps. The mission’s launch date hasn't been officially announced, but is rumored to take place in the early hours of December 8 Beijing time, December 7 UTC. The landing site is speculated to be the Von Kármán crater, which is a part of the moon's largest, deepest, and oldest basin.

Going to the dark side: Once it's landed, Chang’e-4 will get up close and personal with the moon’s many far-side craters. It will also perform radio astronomy experiments and test whether plants can grow in the moon’s gravity. Visiting the far side requires some extra preparation because of the way the moon blocks radio signals. To combat this, China launched Queqiao, a communications satellite, back in May. 

A lunar focus: The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program began in 2004. Since then, the CNSA has launched two unmanned orbiting probes called Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2, as well as the Chang’e-3 lunar lander. The Chang’e-3 rover was the first spacecraft to land on the moon since the Soviet Union’s sample return mission in 1976, but it didn’t move far. After two lunar days (about one month in Earth time), it lost its roving abilities.

What’s next: China’s Chang’e 5 scheduled for launch next year will attempt to bring lunar samples back from its trip to the moon. The US, India, Japan, and Russia also all have plans for upcoming moon landers. Next year we could likely also see the first private moon landing as Google’s Lunar XPrize contestants finally make their launch attempts.

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