China is heading to the dark side of the Moon, in a journey no spacecraft has ever made before.
The Chang’e-4 mission will help illuminate some of the most shadowy secrets of our nearby neighbour, after landing on the far side of the world.
No spacecraft has made such a journey onto the distant part of the Moon. Doing so is difficult because it means venturing to a part of the Moon that is largely unknown to us, since we can never see its far side from Earth.
As well as the audacious landing on the planet, it will carry a range of scientific experiments. Perhaps most intriguingly of them all is a big container that includes seeds and insect eggs and hence create living things that will have been born on the Moon.
The country’s space agency will blast off in just a few days, after a series of successful tests. It sets off Saturday, 8 December, and is expected to drop onto the Moon early next year.
It will head up towards the Moon, fly around it and then drop down, into a specially selected region of the Moon that will become its home.
Once there, it will look to learn a whole host of things about that nearby but still largely mysterious world. It will measure the surface temperature, examine the chemicals that make up its soil, as well as looking up at the Sun.
But the mission is possible because it relies not only on the lander that will touch down on the Moon. It is also made up of a set of other hardware – chief among them the Queqiao satellite, which will serve as a bridge and relay information between the lander on the far side of the Moon and its engineers down on Earth.
Just as with the world it will explore, much of the mission remains murky and unknown. The Chinese space agency has stayed largely quiet about details of what will happen, including where exactly on the Moon it will arrive.
Its mission comes amid a new focus on the Moon – particularly as an important stepping stone on the way to other missions, deeper into the solar system. Nasa, for instance, has spoken about how keen it is to send humans back there, with the aim of eventually using it as a base for journeys to Mars.