China is once again on the threshold of a historic exploration of the near-Earth moon.
After sending three previous missions to the Moon since 2007, including one that housed the nation's first lander and rover, China's latest lunar advance began in the early hours of December 8, 2018, as a Long March 3B Launch vehicle was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern Sichuan Province with the probe Chang & # 39; e-4. Chang'e-4 consists of a lander and a rover, aiming at the moon shore, the moon hemisphere, which always points away from the earth. No space probe has ever reached a soft landing there, even though NASA hit its Ranger 4 probe in 1962 against the shore surface.
After their launch and the 4.5-day moon voyage, Chang & # 39; e-4 braced himself into an elliptical orbit to await his appointment with destiny. Chinese officials have not publicly announced when Chang'e-4 will attempt a landing, but most experts suggest that this will not occur until early January 201
The Chinese Chang'e-4 probe enters the lunar orbit, a crucial step on the way to the first soft landing on the other side of the moon: //t.co/plDGkR6OwD pic.twitter.com / 3vWL6cFBV1
– China Xinhua News (@XHNews) December 12, 2018
On the near side, in many ways we know little about the Farside, "says Mark Robinson, a planet scientist at Arizona State University and the lead investigator of the NASA Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) of NASA.
One hope, Robinson and other US lunar scientists, have found that Chang & # 39; e-4 might be lucky enough to land near an elusive "mares" region on the Moon's shore. These basaltic deposits are made up of ancient, cooled lava and are rich on the moon side, but less common on the shore. Her name comes from the Latin word for "sea". That's exactly what astronomers thought centuries ago was because of their dark color.
"We do not have a documented sample of a Farside mare, so this would be a first," says Robinson Scientific American . Mare basalts represent our best view of the overall composition of the Moon, as well as its mysterious mantle – the layer between the core and the crust – so that a detailed characterization of a Farside mare will allow scientists to learn, among other things, why the Sideside and Farside That's the way Anders looks, he says.
After Chang & # 39; e-4 landed, says Robinson, the LROC camera system aboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter should be able to clearly see the Chinese spacecraft after the touchdown. "We should be able to identify the lander and rover tracks, if not the rover itself," he says.
Jim Head, an outstanding scientist Brown University in Providence, RI, says the Chang'e-4 mission is further evidence of China's view of the moon as not only an object of scientific interest, but also an important strategic asset for the long march of the Moon Nation to become a new global superpower.
"From the point of view of pride, all nations of space travel have their sights set on the moon – how do they see themselves as a nation – and as prestige in the sense that others see them?" Head. "In addition, the successful exploration of space, as in the early days of the Cold War between America and the USSR, is a powerful demonstration of" soft power, "the ability, technological prowess, and leadership on e In a non-threatening, peaceful way. "China is clearly at the forefront of renewed international interest in the study of the moon by robots and humans. "
In China's case, part of the technological power associated with his advance to the moon shore is a satellite called" Queqiao "in May 2018 as the communication relay for Chang's e-4. Since the mass of the Moon blocks terrestrial radio transmissions from and to the shore, only a satellite such as Queqiao can transmit data in near real time between the spacecraft and its ground based controllers. Head believed that Queqiao should be seen as less of a one-time support mission, rather than the first piece of a burgeoning global moon exploration development infrastructure.
What he hopes Chang could find out e-4, says Head Each Lunar Farside mission is essentially focused on Luna Incognita, and therefore inevitably leads to new discoveries. "The exploration explores the unknown, and the demonstration that we can explore and explore the Moon Bank, and in particular the South Pole Aitken Basin, is a fundamental achievement, the first steps, a foot on a new" continent ". As it is The future is difficult to predict, the results of exploration of the unknown are difficult to predict. That's why we explore! "
If everything goes according to plan, Chang & # 39; e-4 should follow the Chang & # 39; e-5 mission, which is due to start in late 2019. Chang'e-5 will mark China's second mission near the Moon and will attempt to extract samples from Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum, a large area of the Moon mare to the northwest of the lunar probe.
Meanwhile, other nations have had moonlighting plans for their neighbors. The Indian moonlander Chandrayaan-2 is due to launch in early 2019, and Russia has announced it will launch a robot mission to the Moon over the next five years. In the US, NASA, bolstered by the Trump government's pro-moon stance, is planning the "Gateway," a lunar, astronaut-operated space station, as well as a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, a public-sector program Private partnership to rely on the private industry to provide transportation to and from the lunar surface for selected payloads.
"In particular, CLPS offers multiple platforms and capabilities to reach the moon through commercial opportunities and partnerships. These CLPS opportunities are the key to rapid innovation and fast space flight, and it will be interesting to compare the results of US and Chinese approaches over the coming years, "says Head.
COOPERATION OR COMPETITION  John Logsdon Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at the Space Policy Institute of George Washington University says it is time to cooperate instead of competing in a renewed global push to explore the moon.
"China Landing is the next step in Land's long-planned lunar exploration program, and as the United States plans its own lunar campaign, it does not make sense for me to exclude Chinese achievements from the integrated approach [an] to learn more about the moon. " says Logsdon. "Instead of Change & # 39; e-4 as a competition NASA may be able to work with China and other aerospace partners on a truly global exploration effort, "NASA said," from any bilateral coordination with China, and consider it a threat to the US leadership.
According to Marcia Smith, an aerospace policy expert and publisher of SpacePolicyOnline.com, China's interest in studying the moon appears to be related to NASA's renewed interest in the moon. Chang & # 39; e-4 is involved with a number of international partners in the mission from the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. NASA is also looking for partners for its lunar program, but must exclude China due to legal bans on Congress.
"Granted, the geopolitical situation with China is tricky, but the same goes for Russia. But NASA and Russia have far-reaching space cooperation, which is being announced as an exception to tense relations on other fronts, "says Smith.
The controversial issue of US-China moon policy is therefore of great importance: if NASA cooperate with Russia To achieve common civilian space targets, why not China?
"NASA strives to place laser retroreflectors on every spacecraft that lands on the moon," says Smith, "perhaps it's a first step, a new one to Chang & # 39; e-5. "The ban on Congress is incomplete, she notes, and the language of the law, which restricts bilateral cooperation, dictates instead that Congress do everything that NASA does with China, So the compromise might be to keep the language, but encourage NASA to take a first step like the retroreflectors or another to do a little scientific project and see what happens. "
Leonard David is the author of Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet, published by National Geographic. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel series "Mars." As a longtime author of SPACE.com, David has been covering the space industry for more than five decades.
This article is reproduced by permission of Scientific American. It was first published on December 21, 2018. The original story can be found here.