Since the turn of the century, China has worked hard to become one of the fastest-rising powers in space. In 2003, the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) began sending their first taikonauts to space with the Shenzou program. This was followed by the deployment of the Tiangong-1 space station in 2011 and the launch of Tiangong-2 in 2016. And in the coming years, China also has its sights set on the Moon.
But before China can conduct crewed lunar missions, they must first explore the surface to locate safe landing spots and resources. This is the purpose behind the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (aka. the Chang’e program). Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, this program made history yesterday (Thursday, Jan. 3rd) when the fourth vehicle to bear the name (Chang’e-4) landed on the far side of the Moon.
The Chang’e-4 mission, which was first announced in 2015, consists of a lunar lander and a rover (Yutu-2, or “Jade Rabbit”), similar to the Chang’e-3 mission. On May 20th, 2018 – shortly before the mission launched – China sent a satellite (Queqiao) to the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange Point to relay communications between the lander and rover (since direct communication with the far side of the Moon is impossible).
According to state Chinese media, the combination lander-rover touched down on the lunar surface at 10:26 am Beijing time on January 3rd, 2019 (22:26 EDT; 19:26 PST on Jan. 2nd). This was an historic accomplishment, as no space agency in the history of space flight has managed to land a mission on the “dark side” of the Moon.
The Chang’e-4 mission then launched on Dec. 8th, 2018, and entered a lunar orbit four days later. There it remained for 22 days as mission controllers tested its systems and waited for the Sun to rise above the pre-selected landing site – the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin. On Monday, Dec. 31st at 10:26 Beijing time (21:26 EDT; 18:26 PST on Jan. 1st), the lander-probe combination began to slowly descend.
During the descent, the lander took pictures of the terrain (shown at top…