China’s ambitious space program is going where no other program has gone before: the far side of the moon.
The Chang’e-4 lunar probe is set to launch this month, state media has reported. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft — named after the mythical Moon Goddess — will land within weeks in the moon’s Aitken Basin, where it will take images of the surface and samples of the soil.
Landing in this unexplored region will enable Chang’e-4’s rover to better study the moon and space because of the lack of electromagnetic interference from Earth. The rover is equipped with a low-frequency radio spectrometer to help scientists understand “how the earliest stars were ignited and how our cosmos emerged from darkness after the Big Bang,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
The probe also will carry a tin filled with the seeds of potatoes and arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard, Xinhua reported. Scientists will test whether the plants can grow while on the moon.
Chang’e-4 also may carry silkworm eggs to conduct the first biological experiment. None of the government agencies involved in the space program — including the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense; China’s National Space Administration; and China’s Lunar and Deep Space Exploration — have published details of the Chang’e-4 launch.
In May, China launched a relay satellite called Queqiao that’s now orbiting about 450,000 kilometers (280,000 miles) from Earth, where a gravitational equilibrium can be maintained so it stays on course to relay messages from the rover back to Earth.
Chang’e is a series of probes that China has launched into orbit and landed on the moon. Chang’e-3, launched in 2013, and its rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, surveyed the moon’s geology and natural resources after a soft landing.
The country also plans to launch its first Mars probe by the end of this decade, according to a white paper on China’s space activities issued in 2016. It also aims to build its own space station in 2022, Xinhua reported.
The nation wants to be one of the world’s top three aerospace powers by 2030, Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, said last year. Its space budget is about $8 billion a year, second only to the U.S., according to the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
NASA is pursuing a dual path of building a lunar orbital platform and returning astronauts to the moon in the mid-2020s, with the eventual aim to send humans to Mars. The Mars InSight craft landed on the planet last month to study its interior to help answer questions about the early days of the solar system.
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