China Space Program Targets Dark Side of Moon

The increasingly ambitious China space program plans to land an unmanned probe on the far side or dark side of the moon, sometime before 2020. Announced on September 9, 2015 via state broadcaster CCTV by one of the program’s leading engineers, the mission would be the first of its kind worldwide, designed as a geological survey of unmapped territory.

As NASA seems to be exploring everything except the moon, the still-developing China space program is finding new exploration opportunities for our closest space neighbor, who we like to believe we understand. The mission is called Chang’e 4, named after the mythical Chinese goddess of the moon.

What’s To Explore If That Side of the Moon Is So Dark?

Of all the opportunities in outer space, why go to the dark side of the moon? Is it just so China can be the first? Is the country just compensating because the only thing it could never export to the U.S. is a classic rock album?

In part, it is for the pure sake of exploration. With all uncharted territory comes new discoveries and a greater understanding of our world and universe, even if those discoveries seem to be little more than a pile of gray rock.

The moon does this funny thing where it rotates in sync with its revolution or orbit. In other words, as it travels 360 degrees around the earth, its “face” is always turned towards us—always has been, always will be. So there is always the same “far side” of the moon; it is a “dark side” only in that it is dark to our vision and understanding. We just can’t see it from earth.

As such, it has also always been easier to land on the moon’s close side and explore what we have seen through our telescopes. New technology should make it easier for the China space program to travel around the moon, land on its far side, and begin analyzing the rocks and landscapes there.

China Is Scoping Out Some Prime Real Estate

The exploration has a practical purpose as well: judging the feasibility of building sensitive instruments there for the exploration of deep space.

A previous challenge of exploring the moon’s far side—that radio transmissions from Earth cannot reach—could make it into an ideal locale from which to explore the rest of space. From there, the China space program could set up sensitive radio telescopes without worry of interruption from Earth’s radio waves.

A Series of Giant Leaps for the China Space Program

The Chang’e 4 mission would continue a series of ambitious missions for China’s space program since it took off in the early 2000s.

In 2003, China sent its first astronaut into space, nearly a half-century after the U.S. and Russia did so. But soon after, it deployed an experimental space station and launched previous stages of its Chang’e lunar program. Furthermore, the country has launched a pair of orbiting lunar probes, and in 2013, it landed a spacecraft on the moon’s surface with a rover on board.

In 2017, before the Chang’e 4 mission to the dark side, it plans to send an unmanned probe to the moon’s close side, collect samples, and return to earth. It would be only the third country to do this, behind Russia and the U.S.

I only hope that on the launch of Chang’e 4, the astronomers at least have the decency to play this in the background.

What do you think the China space program will find on the dark side of the moon? Share your predictions!


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Kerry Martin is a semi-native of Denver. He went to school in Vermont for its great beaches. Now transplanted to Brooklyn, he works as a volunteer coordinator/community organizer for ArchCare TimeBank when he isn't writing Ecology, Technology, and Offbeat articles for Clapway.