BEIJING – The Chinese rover on the far side of the moon is leaving its tracks in the soft lunar surface.
The Jade Rabbit 2 rover drove off its lander’s ramp and onto the soft, snow-like surface at 10:22 p.m. Thursday, about 12 hours after a Chinese spacecraft made the first-ever landing on the moon’s far side. A photo from China’s space agency showed tracks the rover left as it headed away from a ramp leading down from the spacecraft.
“It’s a small step for the rover, but one giant leap for the Chinese nation,” Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the Lunar Exploration Project, told state broadcaster CCTV. “This giant leap is a decisive move for our exploration of space and the conquering of the universe.”
Exploring the cosmos from the far side of the moon could eventually help scientists learn more about the early days of the solar system and even the birth of the universe’s first stars. The far side can’t be seen from Earth and is popularly called the “dark side” by some because it is relatively unknown, not because it lacks sunlight.
Three nations — the United States, the former Soviet Union and more recently China — have sent spacecraft to the near side of the moon, but the latest landing is the first on the far side. That side has been observed many times from lunar orbit, but never up close.
The mission highlights China’s growing ambitions to rival the U.S., Russia and Europe in space, and more broadly, to cement its position as a global power.
The Jade Rabbit 2 rover has six wheels that all have power, so it can continue to operate even if one wheel fails. It can climb a 20-degree hill or an obstacle up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) tall. Its maximum speed is 200 meters (220 yards) per hour.
“The surface is soft and it is similar that you are walking on the snow,” Shen Zhenrong, the rover designer from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., said on CCTV.
The public was kept in suspense about the landing itself for more than an hour after it occurred, with state broadcaster CCTV announcing it at the top of the noon news. By that time, speculation already had begun spreading on social media in China and overseas.
“On the whole, China’s space technology still lags behind the West, but with the landing on the far side of the moon, we have raced to the front,” said Hou Xiyun, a professor at Nanjing University’s school of astronomy and space science.
He added that China has Mars, Jupiter and asteroids in its sights: “There’s no doubt that our nation will go farther and farther.”
The landing was “a big deal” because it used an engineering technique of the spacecraft itself choosing a safe place to touch down in treacherous terrain, something called autonomous hazard avoidance, said Purdue University lunar and planetary scientist Jay Melosh.
He recalled mentioning the idea of such a technique for an unfunded NASA lunar mission about eight years ago, only to be told it wasn’t doable at the time.
“The moon is more challenging to land on than Mars,” Melosh said. “On Mars, you can pick out smooth areas.”
In 2013, the predecessor spacecraft Chang’e 3 made the first moon landing since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. The United States is the only country to successfully send astronauts to the moon — 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing — although China is considering a crewed mission too.