Trip to dark side of moon can light up humanity
At a time of political tensions, US and Chinese scientists should work towards a common goal and show missions are for the good of all rather than just national pride
Pink Floyd might have titled their classic album The Dark Side of the Moon because the lunar far side stands for something dark, mysterious and obscure.
Now, Chinese rocket scientists and astronomers are hoping to shed some light on the unexplored terrain on the side of the moon that is always facing away from Earth and cannot be seen for the most part.
The Queqiao, a relay satellite, has been launched as a key step to preparing for the landing of an exploratory rover later this year in the Aitken basin, one of the largest craters in our solar system, on the far side of the moon.
The Chang’e 4 rover will be the second Chinese lunar probe after the Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit”, rover in 2013. Yutu was decommissioned in July 2016 after operating for 31 months.
How the basin was formed and its material composition have been a long-running debate among scientists. The orbiting Queqiao will relay signals from the lander and rover on the moon’s surface to ground control. The Chinese exploration will hopefully gain new insights into the early formation of the moon, the origin of the solar system and the early conditions of the universe.
Queqiao also carries a radio telescope jointly developed by Chinese and Dutch scientists. Astronomers have long wanted such telescopes on the far side of the moon which is free from radio interference from Earth. Radio telescopes detect signals from faraway planets, stars, nebulas and galaxies. The slightest interference could completely distort them.
Americans are also developing their own radio telescope for similar exploration on the moon. At a time of political tensions, perhaps Chinese and American scientists can work together towards the same goal.
China is pouring billions into its military-run space programme, with the aim of operating a crewed space station by 2022, and of sending people to the moon eventually.
Since the early Soviet and American Apollo missions, the lunar far side has been little explored. So the latest Chinese mission could have significant scientific value. It should stand as an example of costly space missions that are driven by scientific quest for the good of human beings rather than just national pride.