China is set to send a radical probe to the far side of the moon this year, it has been claimed.
The mission is the latest in a string of space breakthrough for China.
The new Chang’e 4 space mission will launch in June, when a Long March 4C rocket will carry a 425kg relay satellite and place it 60,000km behind the moon.
A second launch later in the year will send a lander and rover to the far side of the moon, which will be guided to a safe landing by the satellite.
It will be the first ever landing on the lunar far side, an unexplored region of the Moon called South Pole-Aitken Basin, a vast basin in the southern hemisphere of the far side which extends from the South Pole to Aitken crater.
The rover will also contain a ‘gardening kit’ to pave the way for a human outpost by examining how plants grow on the lunar surface.
‘The Chinese are pushing back the frontier with such a technically challenging mission,’ says Brian Harvey, space analyst and author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward, told The Guardian.
China also announced plans to launch a space probe to bring back samples from the moon, in what state media cast as competition to U.S. President Donald Trump’s ambitions to revitalise U.S. space exploration.
The Chang’e-5 lunar probe is undergoing a final round of tests and is expected to be on standby for launch from August, the official People’s Daily said last year, citing the China National Space Administration.
The launch will involve new challenges for China in sample collection, taking off from the moon and high-speed reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere, making it ‘one of China’s most complicated and difficult space missions’, Hu Hao, an official from China’s Lunar Exploration Programme, told the paper.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for China to become a global power in space exploration.
‘Not long ago, the United States’ Trump Administration revealed an ambition to return to the moon.
‘Our country also announced a series of deep space exploration plans,’ said the official Science and Technology Daily.
‘The moon is the first stop for humanity’s march towards deep space,’ the paper said.
In February, the Trump administration asked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to look into the possibility of manning a heavy-lift rocket mission, expected to be launched in 2018, perhaps setting the stage for a human return to the moon.
However, the plan was ultimately abandoned and the Orion mission will be unmanned on its first flight later this year.
China’s new probe is the latest step in its lunar exploration programme.
In 2013, it completed its first lunar ‘soft landing’ since 1976 with the Chang’e-3 craft and its Jade Rabbit rover.
China is aiming to send a probe to the dark side of the moon by 2018, the first ever such trip, and hopes to put astronauts on the moon by 2036.
In January, China’s space agency announced plans to launch two missions to Mars, and a probe to Jupiter.
Vice Director of China’s National Space Administration Wu Yanhua said the first probe would be sent to Mars by 2020.
Then, a second probe will be launched to collect samples and conduct research on the red planet’s structure, composition, and environment.
The agency also revealed its plans for a fly-by of Jupiter, and the exploration of an asteroid.
China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, and has made steady progress in the short time since.
The country has staged a spacewalk, and landed a rover on the moon in 2013, marking the first time humans had soft landed anything on the moon since the 1970s.
A fully functioning, permanently crewed space station is on course to begin operations six years from now and is slated to run for at least a decade.
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