Once again, China is on the eve of a historic first in its rapid exploration of Earth's moon.
After sending three previous missions moonward since 2007, including one that hosted the country's first ever robot lands and rover, China's latest lunar foray began in the early hours of December 8, 2018, when a long March 3B launch vehicle was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province, carrying Chang & e-4 spacecraft. Consisting of a lander and a rover, Chang-e-4 is targeted at the moon's epicenter, the moon's hemisphere, always facing away from Earth. No spacecraft has ever achieved a soft landing there before, but in 1962, NASA hit its Ranger 4 probe into the far-flung interface.
After its launch and 4.5-day journey to the moon, Chang-e-4 changed into an elliptical lunar orbit to await its fate. Chinese officials have not disclosed when Chang & e-4 will attempt landing, but most experts suspect that it would not occur early in early January 2019, and it was time to coincide with the beginning of the approx. The 14-day period when the farce is bathed in plenty of sunlight for the spacecraft's solar events. The spacecraft's alleged landing land is Von Kármán, a lunar war crater located within an even larger battle crater called the South Pole-Aitken basin on the lunar side of the moon. The basin is the oldest and largest feature on the moon.
China's Chang & e-4 probe enters the lunar cycle, an important step along the way to make the first ever soft landing on the target site https://t.co/plDGkR6OwD pic.twitter.com/3vWL6cFBV1
– China Xinhua News (@XHNews) December 12, 2018
"In relation to the nearness, we know very little about the father's side in many respects," says Mark Robinson, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University and principal researcher for NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC).
One hope that Robinson and other American-based lunar scientists have is that Chang-e-4 could be lucky enough to land near a scam "mare" region on the lunar side of the moon. Comprising of old, chilled lava, these basal-rich deposits are abundant on the lunar side, but far less frequent on the far side. Their name comes from the Latin word for "sea", which is exactly what astronomers suspected centuries ago because of their dark color.
"We don't have a documented sample of a farce jump so it would be a first look," Robinson says. Scientific American. Mare basalts represent our best look at the moon's overall composition and also its mysterious cloak – the layer between the core and the crust – so a detailed characterization of a far-flung mare could give researchers the opportunity, among other things, to learn why the near side and the father side look different, says he.
After the Chang & e-4 countries, Robinson says the LROC camera system on board NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter should clearly see the Chinese spacecraft after touchdown. "We should be able to identify the landing and rover paths, if not the rover himself," he says.
Jim Head, a prominent planetary scientist at Brown University in Providence, RI, says Chang & e's 4 mission is further evidence of China's view of the moon as not only an object of scientific interest, but also an important strategic asset in the country's long march to become a new global superpower.
"All space nations have their sights set on the moon, by both pride – how they see themselves as a nation and prestige, in the sense of how others see them," says Head. "As in the first cold war competition between America and the Soviet Union, successful space research is a huge demonstration of" soft power ", the ability to show technological excellence and leadership in a non-threatening peaceful way." He adds: "China is clearly at the forefront of renewed international interest in robot and human exploration of the moon."
In China's case, part of the technological connection associated with its foray to lunar farside is a satellite called "Queqiao", launched in May 2018 to act as a communication relay to Chang & # 39; e-4. Because the lunar mass blocks terrestrial radio transmissions to and from the far end, only a satellite like Queqiao can transmit data in almost real time between the spacecraft and its terrestrial controllers. Queqiao, says Head, could be seen less as a one-time support mission and more the first piece of a burgeoning "lunar exploration communications global infrastructure."
Regarding what he hopes Chang & e-4 can reveal, Head notes that any mission to the Moon's epitome is essentially "Luna Incognita" and thus inevitably will lead to new discoveries. "The study examines the unknown, and the demonstration that we can land and explore the moon's far-side, especially the South Pole-Aitken Basin, is a basic achievement, the first step, a foothold on a new" continent. "Just as it's hard to predict the future, it's hard to predict the results of exploring the unknown. That's why we're investigating!"
WHAT IS NEXT?
If everything goes according to plan, Chang & e-4 must be followed by the Chang & # 39; e-5 mission, which is now being launched at the end of 2019. Chang & e-5 will mark China's second mission to the moon's near-side and attempt to retrieve Samples from Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum, a vast area of moon shoe in the north-west of the Moon.
Meanwhile, other nations have self-planning plans. India's Chandrayaan-2 Lunar Lander is set to launch in early 2019, and Russia has announced its intention to undertake a robot mission to the moon within the next five years. In the United States, NASA, drafted by the Trump Administration's pro-moon, plans to "Gateway", a moonlit astronaut space station, and a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program that would be a public-private partnership to trust on the private industry to offer transport to and from the lunar surface for selected payloads.
"CLPS offers more platforms and opportunities to reach the moon through commercial opportunities and partnerships. These CLPS capabilities are the key to rapid innovation and rapid spaceflight, and comparing US and Chinese approaches in the coming years will be interesting," says Head .
COOPERATION OR COMPETITION?
John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, says that now is the time to collaborate rather than compete in a renewed global press for moon research.
"China's far-fetched land is the next step in the country's much-planned moon exploration program. As the US is planning its own moon campaign, it makes no sense to exclude Chinese results from [an] integrated approach to learning more about the moon, "Logsdon said." Instead of seeing Change & e-4 as competitive and a threat to US leadership, perhaps the new congress may allow NASA to work with China and other space partners in a truly global exploration effort. "In 2011, Congress adopted legislation banning NASA from any bilateral coordination with China.
According to Marcia Smith, a space policy expert and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com, from a scientific point of view, China's interest in studying the Moon seems to be swallowing with NASA's renewed interest in all things. Chang-e-4 involves a number of international partners on missions from the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia, she notes. NASA is also seeking partners for its lunar program, but has to exclude China as a result of Congress's legal ban.
"Geographically, the geopolitical situation with China is delicate, but the same is true of Russia, but NASA and Russia have extensive space partnerships except for tense relationships on other fronts," Smith says.
So, the question of the US-China moon is encircled by the moon: if NASA is allowed to cooperate with Russia to reach common civilian space targets, why not China?
"NASA is eager to place laser retroreflectors on any spacecraft landing on the moon," Smith says. "Perhaps one adds to Chang & # 39; e-5 could be a first step." Congress's ban is not complete, she notes. Instead, the language of the law limiting bilateral cooperation requires that Congress approve something that NASA does with China. "So the compromise might be to keep the language, but urge NASA to take a first step, like retroreflectors or another small scientific project, and see what happens."
Leonard David is the author of Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet, published by National Geographic. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel series, "Mars". A long-term critic for SPACE.com has David reported on the space industry for more than five decades.
This article is reproduced with the permission of Scientific American. It was published on December 21, 2018. Find the original story here.