In the early 1970s, future Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt strongly petitioned NASA to land the Apollo 17 mission on the far side of the moon, ultimately to no avail. His argument was that it would have provided unique science on a fascinating region of the lunar surface, but NASA deemed it too risky for a manned mission at the time.
Now, more than 40 years later, China is planning to achieve this goal in 2018 or 2019, albeit with an unmanned lander and rover, by becoming the first nation to land on the far side of the moon – and they want it to be a stepping stone to eventually having a manned lunar base on the surface.
The stationary lander and rover will jointly be called Chang’e 4, a successor to the Chang’e 3 mission, which touched down on 14 December 2013. This was the first soft-landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. The European Space Agency (ESA) may play a role in the mission, but it's unsure what yet.
With it, Chang’e 3 carried the Yutu rover, which remained operational on the surface for a few days before running into complications. According to a presentation submitted to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, China will be hoping to build on this rover technology for the next mission. “[The] Chang’e 4 probe, lander and rover [will] have the same technical status with the Chang’e 3,” they said, but “exploration will be redesigned” and “the payload will be reconfigured.”
China's Yutu rover, pictured, landed on the Moon on 14 December 2013. CNSA/CCTV.
The lander will be accompanied by an orbiting relay satellite in the Earth–Moon Lagrange point 2 (L2) position, into which China sent a test spacecraft last year. For a mission to the far side of the Moon, this is crucial, as the Moon is tidally locked to Earth and the far side never comes into view. This means that all communications must be done via a relay satellite like this.
This was one of the reasons Schmitt was so keen for a mission here. It would have tested how astronauts would cope communicating with Earth in such a manner, which is likely to be necessary on future manned Mars missions.
Perhaps with this in mind, China added in their proposal that the Chang’e 4 mission would serve as “experimental verification for [a] lunar base”. The lunar far side is appealing for a manned base, as some key science could be performed here. For example, as Earth is constantly out of view, the far side is shielded from radio interference on Earth. This means that a radio telescope could have a much clearer view of the universe.
In addition, there are also some features of interest on the far side, such as the South Pole-Aitken basin, while the L2 point has also been considered as a location for a “gateway space station” for manned missions further into the Solar System.
ESA has previously revealed plans to build a base on the moon (artist's impression shown). ESA/Foster + Partners.
China has made no secret of its desire to cooperate with other nations in space. It is already hoping to be allowed to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) in future, it may be involved in a future Mars mission and now it is considering partnering with ESA for lunar missions. ESA itself has proposed building a “lunar village” recently.
Cooperation with China has been complicated by US space policy, which prohibits NASA from working with the Chinese Space Agency (CNSA) in any way, and thus other countries have been reticent to do so. Perhaps this latest development could represent a thawing of tensions, and lead us closer to a desirable future in which international cooperation among all nations in space is the norm.