- China landed a spacecraft called Chang'e 4 on the moon's far side for the first in human history.
- A rover and lander will study lunar geology, look for water ice, scan the night sky for radio bursts, and even grow silkworms.
- But Chang'e 4 is just one mission that will lead to a sample return, a crewed lunar landing, and maybe even the construction of permanent moon bases.
- The moon mission can be seen as yet another sign of the erosion of the US' standing in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
However, Chang'e 4 didn't touch down just anywhere: China parked the car-sized lander and its rover on the moon's far side— an enigmatic region that, until now, humans have explored from only above.
China's feat was celebrated around the world by space-exploration enthusiasts and even top-level NASA officials. After all, it could help unlock ancient secrets of the moon's violent formation, scan a crystal-clear night sky for radio objects billions of light-years from Earth, and even help locate deposits of water ice.
"America's space program has always set the example for the world. China's moon landing is a scientific achievement no doubt," Mark Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut, tweeted on Friday. But he added the mission is "also a reminder that we need to get back to policy over politics" or "the world might leave us behind" — with "we" being the United States of America.
Kelly is an astronaut who's as patriotic and informed as they come, and he calls developments in space as he sees them. He's also not alone in believing China may soon blow past the rest of the world in space exploration.
"This is more than just a landing," Alan Duffy, an astronomer at the Royal Institution of Australia, told the Washington Post after the landing.
Here's what the Chang'e 4 mission is, why China landed it on the far side of the moon, and why it should be a wake-up call, though not a shocking one, to the US and the rest of the world.
Early in the morning of December 8, 2018, a Chinese rocket launched with Chang'e 4: the first mission ever to touch the far side of the moon.
Lunar satellites and NASA astronauts had photographed the far side, but until January 3, 2019, no spacecraft had ever landed there.
"Chang'e" is the name of a mythical lunar goddess, and "4" signifies the mission is one of several over the past decade. China's previous robotic moon landing, called Chang'e 3, put a rover called Yutu or "Jade Rabbit" on the surface in December 2013.
Chang'e 4 and its rover were initially backup hardware for Chang'e 3, so China decided to use them for the riskier mission to the far side.
China solved the problem by launching a satellite called Queqiao or "magpie bridge" (another mythological reference) in May 2018. It "sees" the moon's far side and can relay data signals to and from Earth.
After weeks of traveling through space, Chang'e 4 safely landed on the lunar far side and rolled out its Yutu 2 rover.
China was not very forthcoming with details about the mission's status, but lunar scientists at NASA helped pinpoint the Chang'e 4 landing site. One researcher used images distributed through state media to locate it.
The coordinates placed the landing zone inside a 111-mile-wide impact site called the Von Kármán Crater.
The crater is part of the South Pole-Aitken Basin: a 1,550-mile-wide scar made by a collision about 3.9 billion years ago. The event may have splattered deep-down geologic layers of the moon onto its surface.
The Yutu 2 rover, which is designed to last three months, is recording images while it rolls across the far side. It also has ground-penetrating radar, a rock-analyzing spectroscope, and a device to study lunar water ice.
Meanwhile, the car-sized lander is recording its surroundings with cameras and will conduct several other experiments.
When the 14-day-long lunar night arrives, the lander will scan the skies above for radio waves. It may have the clearest-ever radio-based view of deep space. (The moon will block noisy emissions from both the sun and Earth.)
The data from the far side could help chip away at mysteries surrounding the moon's violent formation.
The lander also holds a 7-inch-long aluminum container packed with potato seeds, mustard seeds, and silkworm eggs — a self-contained-ecosystem experiment.
China is not sitting idly by. Chang'e 4 is just one stage of several in a quest to not only bring back a sample of the moon, perhaps in 2019, but also send people there.
China is now working on a spaceship, called the New Generation Manned Spacecraft, that could fly four to six people into orbit at once. It's also developing a new space station.
China is hoping to land a crew in the early 2030s, if not sooner, and the stakes are high. In addition to slam-dunking US achievements in spaceflight, there may be hundreds of billions of tons of water ice at the moon's poles.
That water ice could be harvested by people and mining robots, then split into hydrogen and oxygen — the fuel and oxidizer that many rockets use.
Lunar fuel would take a spaceship a lot farther into the solar system. That's because it takes many times less energy to leave the moon's surface compared with the energy required to depart Earth.
For decades, China has awarded more college degrees in STEM than the US, and in recent years more than four times as many. Having an army of skilled researchers has made the Chang'e moon program possible.
Part of the reason the US has lagged behind is because college degrees have become more expensive. Americans also don't believe enough federal funding is being spent on education in general.
As a result, the disparities between the US and China — and the latter nation's advantage — are increasing, not just in space exploration, but in other industries and endeavors.
China has become a powerhouse of scientific research and technology products.
China has even launched a quantum satellite into space that physicists say is "profound" and could help lead to a super-secure, super-fast quantum-internet system for the nation.
China has even roped high schoolers into developing artificial-intelligence technologies for its military.
Source: South China Morning Post
So, while January's far-side moon landing might seem esoteric, it is a major example of China's success in boosting its scientific, technological, educational, and economic standing in the world — one that might, as Scott Kelly warned, soon leave the US behind.