Tech & Science

NASA Spots China's Chang'e 4 Lander in Massive Crater on the Far Side of the Moon

China’s Chang’e 4 lander landed on the far side of the moon on January 3, becoming the first spacecraft in history to successfully achieve such a feat.

Now, NASA has managed to spot Chang’e 4, capturing a spectacular image of the area around its landing site using the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the moon since 2009.

The Chinese spacecraft landed in the 110-mile-wide Von Kármán crater, which is located within another much larger depression known as the South Pole-Aitken basin. With a depth of 8 miles and a diameter of around 1,600 miles, the basin is one of the largest known impact craters in the Solar System. Shortly after touchdown, Chang’e 4 deployed a smaller rover known as Jade Rabbit 2 to explore its surroundings.

A month later, the LRO approached the Von Kármán crater from the east and snapped the image below looking across the floor towards its west wall, in which the lander can be seen—albeit only just.

“Because LRO was 330 kilometers [205 miles] to the east of the landing site, the Chang’e 4 lander is only about two pixels across (the bright spot between the two arrows), and the small rover is not detectable,” NASA lunar researcher Mark Robinson wrote in the LRO camera blog. “The massive mountain range in the background is the west wall of Von Kármán crater, rising more than 3,000 meters [9,850 feet] above the floor.”

NASA made use of the LRO before to capture images of Chang’e 4’s predecessor, which landed on the near side of the moon in 2013.

The latest mission has several objectives, one of which is to investigate lunar rocks and soil in the crater. Scientists think that the massive impact which created the depression could have exposed material from deep below the surface, which could provide fascinating new insights into the moon’s internal structure and origins.

Among its other goals are studying cosmic rays, observing the solar corona—the Sun’s outer layer—and carrying out astronomical observations using radio waves. The mission is also notable for being the first to grow plants on the moon, as part of an experiment which could have significant implications for long-term human space travel.

The lander is expected to be operational for around a year, while the less hardy rover is predicted to last just three months in the brutal lunar conditions, which alternate between extreme heat and cold.

content_M1303521387_LRmos Arrows indicate the position of Chang'e 4 lander on the floor of the Von Kármán crater. The sharp crater behind and to the left of the landing site is 3,900 meters across (12,800 feet) and 600 meters (1,970 feet) deep. Image was shrunk by more than a factor of ten. NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

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