Far Side of the Moon: China's Lunar Rover Sends First Panoramic Photos Home
The “dark side” of the Moon didn’t get its nickname because it never sees light. Rather, it’s that Earth never sees it. But our lack of visibility changed last week when the Chinese lander Chang’e-4 became the first spacecraft to touch down on the side of the Moon that faces away from our planet. Now Earthlings are the recipients of a consistent stream of unprecedented images sent from the far side, the newest of which was released Friday by officials at the Chinese Lunar Exploration Project (CELP).
CELP, which is overseen by the China National Space Administration, released two stunning images on the Chinese Twitter-like microblogging website Sina Weibo. A topographical camera on the Change’4 lander captured the “ring shot” and the panoramic shot, an incredibly detailed conglomerate of 80 individual photographs.
The huge panoramic shot, broken down in the slideshow below, shows the perspective of the lander. You can see the rover, nicknamed Jade Rabbit 2 (or Yutu-2), exploring the lunar terrain.
According to the Weibo post, the researchers have completed the preliminary analysis of the lunar surface topography seen here around the landing site. Getting these photographs from the far side of the moon to Earth wasn’t easy: The images first had to be sent from the lander to the relay communication satellite Queqia (which translates to “Magpie Bridge”), which in turn sent it to Earth.
It was launched in May 2018 for this purpose. Because the lander is on the far side of the Moon, the planetary body itself blocks direct radio contact with Earth — making satellite communication the only option.
The pictures, which CLEP says indicate that the spacecraft and the relay satellite are both in good condition, reveal a smooth lunar surface and small craters in the distance. The jagged edges of the craters, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, are poised to be a challenge for the controllers who plot the rover’s travels. The seemingly serene flatland currently around the rover, planetary science associate professor Juliane Gross explained to Inverse last week, is an upper surface layer called the regolith. The bulk of this layer is a fine, extremely light gray soil — fine pieces that exist because of eons of space weathering and lunar surface bombardment.
As the Jade Rabbit 2 continues its journey, it will measure the chemical composition of the regolith, study cosmic rays, and observe the solar corona. The team behind the mission also hopes that observations of the Moon’s far side will reveal insight about the early days of the solar system. It’s a fresh step in moon science — and we can watch it from the comforts of Earth.