Those setting their sights spaceward on New Year’s Eve will likely be watching out for New Horizons’ long-awaited flyby of Ultima Thule, the farthest object humans will have ever encountered in space. But another monumental space event is in the works — one that people have waxed poetic about for centuries. Sometime between January 1 and 3, China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft will land on the dark side of the moon.
The dark side of the moon — now more commonly referred to as the “far” side, among scientists — is the one that faces away from Earth, gazing outward into deep space. Because it’s perpetually turned away from us, there’s not much we know about it other than that it’s pockmarked with huge craters and a few flat plains created by ancient volcanic eruptions.
Chang’e 4, named after the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, entered a lunar orbit on Sunday after launching from Xichang December 7, and now the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is waiting for an appropriate moment between Tuesday and Thursday to attempt a soft landing, according to the South China Morning Post.
This will be no easy feat because the fact that the landing site is on the moon’s far side means that Chang’e 4 can’t communicate directly with Earth. To solve this problem, CNSA launched its “Magpie Bridge” satellite to act as a go-between.
China’s attempt to land Chang’e 4 is seen as some by the nation’s attempt to gain international primacy in space exploration. NASA scientists have attempted to get to know the far side before, but as Inverse reported previously, none of those plans have come to fruition because of a lack of funding:
Back in 2008, astronomers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory proposed putting a giant telescope, the “Dark Ages Lunar Interferometer”, on the far side of the moon, but this project didn’t get off the ground. Ditto for a similar idea NASA was looking into in 2013. In order to get the right sort of telescope, really an arrays of antennae, in the right spot, NASA would have had to launch mission after mission and pay through the nose. In order to do science on the moon, you kind of need to be on the moon.
The launch of Chang’e 4, reports the South China Morning Post, will cross off the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme, the nation’s long-term plan for eventually landing a human on the moon, perhaps by 2025–2030. NASA is, likewise, gearing up to reach the same goal.
Space supremacy aside, one benefit of being the first nation to land a probe on the moon is getting first dibs on scoping out the terrain, which could eventually be home to an array of telescopes to investigate deep space. “Astronomers have long dreamed of a radio telescope array built on the far side of the moon,” Tamela Maciel, Space Communications Manager at the UK National Space Center said in an interview with The Guardian earlier this month.
“Since the far side of the moon never faces the Earth, it’s shielded from all of our radio noise, and a radio telescope here would be like escaping from city light pollution and seeing the night sky from the top of a mountain.”
Only time will tell: In the first few days of 2019, the Moon’s far side may suddenly seem a lot closer than we thought.