China National Space Administration

China Just Became The First Nation To Touch Down On The Dark Side Of The Moon

You don't make discoveries without taking some risks and heading into some dark places. And places don't get much riskier or darker than outer space. Although space exploration is nothing new, it still takes unbelievable skill to pull it off successfully.

The latest major breakthrough beyond the Earth comes from a nation we don't really expect it to, that has much more limited experience with space exploration — but has some mighty goals all the same, and is clearly willing to take big risks and go into dark places.

China made history when its Chang'e-4 probe touched down on the far side of the Moon.

China National Space Agency

They're the first nation to land a probe there and to send surface images back to Earth. Now the probe, which includes a rover, will explore the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, an area that should be ideal for discovery.

Although the area obviously hasn't been explored up close before, the Aitken basin is believed to have been formed by a massive collision early in the Moon's history.

China National Space Agency

Which means that material from the Moon's interior should be strewn about the area, providing clues to how it was formed. As physics professor Andrew Coates told the BBC, "This huge structure is over 2,500 km in diameter and 13 km deep, one of the largest impact craters in the Solar System and the largest, deepest, and oldest basin on the Moon."

Because the Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, we only ever get to see one side of it.

Twitter | @PaulKadak

The far side, commonly called the "dark side," has only ever been visited from orbit. A Soviet probe, Luna 3, mapped the far side in 1958, and Apollo astronauts got to see it with their own eyes in the '60s, but nobody has ever visited it up close until now.

There are some wonderful opportunities for discovery there apart from roaming the surface.

Twitter | @XHNews

The far side of the Moon is much quieter than the near side, at least in terms of things like radio signals because the Moon's body shields them. To send anything back to Earth, the probe has to bounce its signals off an intermediate satellite first. So astronomers are excited to find out what they can learn about the universe without all that interference to filter out.

This historic first marks a huge milestone for China's space program.

Getty Images | VCG

"There's a lot of geopolitics or astropolitics about this," Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defense strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The Guardian. "It's not just a scientific mission, this is all about China's rise as a superpower."

NASA did comment on the Chinese mission.

The space agency's administrator, Jim Bridenstine, congratulated China in a tweet, calling the landing "an impressive accomplishment." And it was indeed an accomplishment. The probe had been orbiting the Moon for almost a month taking readings and measurements to avoid obstacles as it slowly lowered down to the surface.

China is planning more missions to the Moon as well.

Getty Images | Wang Zhao

There are Chang'e-5 and Chang'e-6 missions planned for the future, according to the BBC, and they'll involve not only landing on the Moon, but returning samples of lunar minerals and soil to the Earth. And that's far from the end of China's space ambitions, which also include building their own space station, due to start construction in 2020, and sending people to the surface of the Moon.

h/t: BBC

Filed Under: