HELSINKI, Finland — China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft made the first ever soft-landing on the far side of the moon Jan. 2 in a mission investigating the history of the solar system and paving the way for future exploration.
The 1,200-kilogram dry mass Chang’e-4 lander touched down at 177.6 degrees east longitude and 45.5 degrees south within Von Kármán crater at 9:26 p.m. Eastern, according to an announcement from the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
The spacecraft began its descent at 9:15 p.m. from a perilune of 15 kilometers with a burn of its single main variable thruster before entering approach, hazard avoidance and slow descent phases, with a descent camera returning images of the approaching surface.
The lander and the companion 140-kilogram rover, which is expected to be deployed within the coming hours, will work toward science goals including analyzing the lunar surface and subsurface composition, assessing the radiation environment and its interaction with the regolith and low frequency radio astronomy, as well as returning high-resolution images from terrain and panoramic cameras.
The 186-kilometer-diameter Von Kármán crater containing the landing site is situated within the 2,500-kilometer-wide South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin, which is one of the oldest and largest impact craters in the solar system.
The basin could contain exposed material from the moon’s upper mantle and promises clues to the history and development of the solar system. A sample return from the SPA basin has been noted as a priority in past U.S. Planetary Science Decadal Surveys.
The mission launched Dec. 8 and had been in lunar orbit since Dec. 12, where it tested communications and refined its orbit in preparation for a landing timed to follow sunrise over the target site, allowing the mainly solar-powered craft to begin operations immediately.
Chang’e-4 is the repurposed backup spacecraft to the Chang’e-3 mission, which landed on Mare Imbrium on the near side in December 2013, making China only the third country to soft-land on the moon.
While the Chang’e-3 rover, on which the Chang’e-4 is based, traveled just 114 meters before being rendered immobile on Mare Imbrium in early 2014, officials with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), the spacecraft’s manufacturer, have stated that the issue has been identified and addressed and that the new rover has been upgraded for greater reliability and longevity.
The landing comes ahead a wave of renewed interest in lunar exploration, with NASA, ESA, Russia, India and private companies working on a range of missions.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) also announced Wednesday that it plans to launch the Chang’e-5 near side sample return mission with the second of two planned Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket launches in 2019.