Almost exactly half a century after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted an American flag on the moon, a Chinese lunar mission has reignited the space race.
In what was widely seen as a statement of intent from a sleeping giant that could only watch from the sidelines when the US and Russia raced to the stars in the 1960s, China’s state broadcaster announced in the early hours of yesterday that its explorer Chang’e 4 had landed on the moon’s so-called dark side.
It was a moment of national pride that represented far more than just a triumph of science, a Yorkshire academic said last night.
“This is the moon’s South Pole, where there is water. That means you can grow food and crops, and make rocket fuel,” said John Baruch, a visiting professor at Leeds Beckett University and China’s Tsinghua University.
He said the realisation that travel to areas of the moon other than its equator was now possible, would launch a new era of space tourism.
“There will be an enormous commercial market among people wanting to look at their own planet,” he said.
“From the moon, the earth will look enormous in the sky – about four times the size of a harvest moon – and with a pair of binoculars you’ll be able to see your back garden.
“Our grandchildren will have in their bucket of things to do, a holiday on the moon to look at the earth.”
The first photograph from Chang’e 4 – named after a Chinese goddess who, legend has it, has lived on the moon for thousands of years – shows a small crater and a barren surface that appears to be illuminated by a light from the probe.
The craft had touched down on the relatively unexplored surface of the far side of the moon just over an hour earlier, the China National Space Administration said. The news was the top item on the noon bulletin of China Central Television, and the clearest sign yet of the country’s growing ambitions as a space power.
In 2013, its previous craft, Chang’e 3, made the first moon landing since the then-Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976. The United States is the only other country that has engineered landings.
The work of Chang’e 4, which is carrying a rover, includes astronomical observations and probes to determine the structure and mineral composition of the terrain.
“The far side of the moon is a rare, quiet place that is free from interference of radio signals from Earth,” mission spokesman Yu Guobin said. “This probe can fill the gap of low-frequency observation in radio astronomy and will provide important information for studying the origin of stars.”
In May, a relay satellite named Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, after an ancient Chinese folk tale, was launched to provide communications support between Chang’e 4 and earth.
A Long March 3B rocket carrying Chang’e 4 blasted off on December 8 from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in the south of the country.
Prof Baruch, who previously worked on a robotic telescope in Tenerife for Bradford University, said China would be keen to share its knowledge from the current project and that a radio telescope on the far side of the moon would be “an immense step forward for science”.