Chinese Space Program Heads for the Far Side of the Moon

阿爾特斯 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
阿爾特斯 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / 阿爾特斯 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The American space program may have turned its attention toward Mars in recent years, but other countries have set their sights on objects a bit closer to home. This week, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced its plans to be the first nation to send a rover to the far side of the Moon, which is not visible from Earth. 

The CNSA got a relatively late start but has more than made up for it by progressing with impressive speed through a series of lunar missions. By December 2013, the program had landed its Chang’e 3 probe on the Moon. The probe carried a lunar rover called Yutu (“jade rabbit”), which roamed the Moon’s surface, collecting rock samples. Analysis of those samples, published in December 2015, changed the scientific understanding of the Moon’s history. 

Also onboard the Chang’e 3 probe was a robotic telescope, which has been hard at work for more than two years now. In October 2015, Chinese researchers reported that the telescope had logged more than 2000 hours looking at 40 different stars. 

Now the CNSA is looking ahead to 2018, when it intends to launch Chang’e 4 toward the far side of the Moon. This next-generation probe is similar to its predecessor but has a larger carrying capacity, which will allow the collection of more geological samples. If successful, Chang’e 4 will be the first spacecraft to land on the Moon’s far side—an exciting possibility for scientists.

Like the American-Soviet space race of the 20th century, the Chinese space program may have a dual agenda, part scientific and part geopolitical. The U.S. Department of Defense has cast a critical eye on the CNSA’s projects, asserting the program was “pursuing activities aimed at preventing its adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis,” according to Reuters. The Chinese government claims the program has only peaceful intentions.

The CNSA’s landers and rovers take their names from figures in Chinese mythology. According to legend, the goddess Chang’e lives on the Moon with her pet rabbit Yutu. Where many Westerners see a man in the Moon, Chinese people can trace the outline of Yutu, hard at work with a mortar and pestle, brewing the elixir of life for its mistress.