In space first, China launches lunar rover to far side of the moon

China's Chang'e-4 lunar probe rover.

China is poised to become the first country to explore the far side of the moon with the launch of a lunar rover Saturday, another step to its goal of becoming a space superpower.

The Chang’e 4 lunar mission lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the Sichuan province in the early morning, confirmed by the Twitter account of the country’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

It’s expected to land in early January after 26 days of flight, said China’s Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

The lander will conduct the first lunar low-frequency radio astronomy experiment, observe whether plants will grow in the low-gravity environment, and explore whether there is water or other resources at the poles.

Another function of the mission is to study the interaction between solar winds and the moon surface using a new rover.

“Since the far side of the moon is shielded from electromagnetic interference from the Earth, it’s an ideal place to research the space environment and solar bursts, and the probe can ‘listen’ to the deeper reaches of the cosmos,” said Tongjie Liu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center for the China National Space Administration.

Because the far side of the moon is free from interference from radio frequencies, the mission requires a relay satellite to transmit signals that was launched into place this year. The Chang’e 4 rover is 1.5 meters (5 feet) long and about 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide and tall, with two foldable solar panels and six wheels.

“China is anxious to get into the record books with its space achievements,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College and an expert on China’s space program.

“It is highly likely that with the success of Chang’e — and the concurrent success of the human spaceflight Shenzhou program — the two programs will eventually be combined toward a Chinese human spaceflight program to the Moon,” she added. “Odds of the next voice transmission from the Moon being in Mandarin are high.”

China’s last lunar rover — named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit — ceased operation in August 2016 after 972 days of service on the moon’s surface as part of the Chang’e 3 mission. China was only the third nation to carry out a lunar landing, after the United States and Russia.

The overall design of the new rover is inherited from Jade Rabbit, according to the chief designer of China’s lunar probe program.

“We worked hard to improve its reliability, conducting thousands of experiments to ensure its long-term operation, especially taking into consideration rocks, ravines and frictions on the Moon,” Wu Weiren told state broadcaster CCTV in August.

Beijing plans to launch its first Mars probe around 2020 to carry out orbital and rover exploration, followed by a mission that would include collection of surface samples from the Red Planet.

China is also aiming to have a fully operational permanent space station by 2022, as the future of the International Space Station remains in doubt due to uncertain funding and complicated politics.

In comparison, despite its recent success in sending a robotic lander to Mars, the US space agency NASA has faced years of budgetary constraints.

Although the Chinese government has long stressed its “peaceful motives” in space exploration, Washington increasingly views China — along with Russia — as a potential threat, accusing Beijing of working to bring new weapons into space and prompting President Donald Trump to announce the establishment of a US Space Force by 2020.

The US Congress has barred NASA from working with China due to national security concerns.

“A high percentage of space technology is (civilian-military) dual use,” Johnson-Freese said. “The US sees pretty much everything China does in space — including things the US has done in space — as threatening.”

She suggested that combining military preparedness with diplomatic efforts would best deter perceived threats in space from all sides but added that “unfortunately, the US has not shown interest in diplomatic leadership regarding space security.”