Chinese probe lands on ‘dark’ side of the moon to collect rare samples

An unmanned Chinese spacecraft touched down on the far side of the moon Sunday, China’s space agency said, marking its second mission to a lunar region that no other country has landed on amid a growing international rivalry over space exploration. If successful, it will be the first mission in history to retrieve samples from the far side of the moon.

The China National Space Administration sent the Chang’e 6 lunar probe to collect rock and other material near and around an impact crater called the Apollo basin, which is part of the larger South Pole-Aitken basin of the moon, according to the country’s official Xinhua News Agency.

The Chang’e 6 landed at 6:23 a.m. local time after it was launched into space on May 3 from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, located on the southern island of Hainan. In Chinese mythology, Chang’e is the goddess of the moon.

China, the United States, Japan, India and Russia have invested heavily in space exploration in recent years — crowding a field that has throughout history been touted as a symbol of national power and progress.

For China and the United States, in particular, a rivalry is escalating over scientific frontiers in space; both nations are gunning for the accolade of having sent humans to the moon for the second time in history, with the United States planning to do so as soon as 2026 and China planning the same by 2030. (The United States was the first country to land people on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.)

The far side of the moon — also known as the dark side of the moon — is the lunar hemisphere that always faces away from Earth. The word “dark” doesn’t refer to a lack of light but rather the fact that scientists know so little about this hemisphere.

Astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission were the first to see the dark side in 1968, and the Chang’e 4 made the first-ever landing there in January 2019. Communications are more difficult on the far side because radio waves are blocked by thick, solid rock, requiring scientists to use a relay satellite to send signals to the space craft and to work under a shorter window for sample collection. Rough terrain also makes for difficult landings.


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The Chang’e 6 is expected to take about 15 hours to collect the samples. To adjust to that short time frame, CNSA scientists developed the space craft to make autonomous judgments while executing fewer commands than on previous missions, according to Xinhua.

The mission aims to develop key sampling technology, as well as takeoff and ascent capabilities from the far side of the moon, Xinhua added.

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