Chang’e 4’s mission across the dark side of the moon has begun in earnest. The Chinese spacecraft made history with the first soft landing on the moon’s lesser-known far side earlier this month.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has begun releasing pictures taken by Jade Rabbit 2 — Chang’e 4’s rover — on its journey across one of the largest impact craters in the solar system.
Jade Rabbit 2, as the first rover to travel over the far side’s rocky terrain, also cultivated life for a short time with the first successful biological germination of seeds to take place on the moon. This initiative started in 2015 when Chinese space officials invited young people across the country to submit ideas for Chang’e 4’s cargo. The mini biosphere, which houses cress seeds, fruit-fly eggs and yeast, was the winner from more than 250 proposals.
Unfortunately, the 1-litre canister that houses the seeds did not have a battery-powered heater, so the seedlings were unable to survive moon’s bitterly cold two-week night. The dead plants will decompose over the next few weeks. No organic material will be exposed to the moon’s environment as the canister is an enclosed system. While the sprouts may not have survived the lunar surface’s minus 52 degrees Celsius temperatures, their germination marks a critical step towards the prospect of growing food in space. This is a vital development for the viability of long-term space missions and potential human outposts on the moon and other planets. Each mission beyond our planet helps humanity work through obstacles like these.
One of the greatest challenges that has prevented a rover from exploring the far side before now has been the difficulty of staying in contact with Earth.
Queqiao, a bridge relay satellite that has been orbiting the moon since June 2018, solved this problem. For the rest of this year, Jade Rabbit 2 will gather detailed data about the surface and near subsurface of the moon’s Von Kármán Crater – a large impact crater that is 180km wide and 13km deep – and relay it back to Earth via Queqiao.
Add these efforts to China’s ambitious list of upcoming lunar missions – including the launch of Chang’e 5 later this year to collect samples from the near side of the moon, the first mission of its kind since 1976, and a 2020 mission to Mars – and we are reminded of China’s strategy to position itself at the forefront of
21st-century space exploration.