An artist’s rendering of the Chang’e-4 probe on the moon’s dark side. Photo: Handout
An artist’s rendering of the Chang’e-4 probe on the moon’s dark side. Photo: Handout

China has unveiled the moon lander and rover that will accompany the spacecraft Chang’e-4 on a 363,100-kilometer odyssey to the dark side of the moon in December, and pave the way for a possible manned landing.

Named after the goddess of the moon in ancient Chinese folklore, the Chang’e-4 will carry a moon rabbit called Yutu that is actually a rectangular box with two foldable solar panels and six wheels to deal with the rugged terrain. Yutu is about the size of a Smart microcar.

The rover has a camera with a panoramic view, an infrared imaging spectrometer and radar measurement devices to obtain images of the moon’s surface and analyze the composition of the lunar soil.

Wu Weiren, chief designer of the lunar probe program at the China National Space Administration, told Xinhua that the lander and rover would also carry a number of payloads, including silkworms that will be grown in a container. There are also payloads from other countries involved in the lunar exploration program, which started in 2003.

The Chang’e-4 is scheduled to land in the Aitken Basin in the south pole region on the far side of the moon. Around 2,500 km in diameter and 13 km deep, it is thought to be the oldest crater on the moon and one of the least explored. No country has ever landed a probe there.

Exploring the dark side is challenging, as it always faces away from the Earth. This is because the moon’s revolution cycle (the time needed to complete one orbit) and rate of spin always match: the moon rotates once every time it circles the Earth.

The ultimate target is a manned landing  

Chang’e-4 will be guided by a relay satellite, the Queqiao (“bridge of magpies”), that has been in a halo orbit since May around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the Earth-moon system. Here it can “see” both the Earth and the moon’s far side and provide a communication link between the probe and its ground control center in Beijing.

China’s fourth probe will follow the same path as Chang’e-3, launched at the end of 2013, which became the first Chinese spacecraft to land on and explore an extraterrestrial body, and the first spacecraft to soft-land on the moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976.

The current mission is intended to determine the age and composition of the most unexplored region of the moon, and develop technologies that will be required for the later stages of the program.

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has started accepting private investment from individuals and enterprises for the first time in a bid to accelerate aerospace innovation, reduce production costs and promote military-civilian cooperation, according to Chinese papers.

After the completion of the Chang’e-4 probe China will launch a series of follow-up robotic lunar missions that will build towards an attempted manned landing on the moon in the early 2030s.