China’s Chang’e-6 spacecraft lands on Moon’s unexplored far side

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced on Sunday that its spacecraft successfully landed on the unexplored far side of the Moon, the South Pole-Aitken Basin. 

The Chang’e-6 landed at the designated landing area at 6:23 am (Beijing Time) in the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) Basin, from where it will now collect samples from the lunar surface. This is also the second time a mission has managed to reach the far side, the first too was by China in 2019 with its Chang’e-4 probe.

  Chang’e-6 consists of an orbiter, a returner, a lander and an ascender.

In what China called a historic moment, the Chang’e-6 was launched from Wenchang Space Launch Center on May 3 and has been orbiting the moon for about 20 days, waiting to land. The lander component of the mission then separated from the orbiter to touch down on the far side, a side of the moon which faces permanently away from Earth. 

The landing itself was a risky process, considering how it is difficult to communicate with spacecraft once they reach the far side of the Moon.

According to the state-run Xinhua agency, the probe used an autonomous visual obstacle avoidance system during the descent, which allowed it to detect obstacles. This helped choose a comparatively safe landing area based on the brightness and darkness of the lunar surface. “The lander hovered about 100m (328ft) above the safe landing area and used a laser 3D scanner before a slow vertical descent. The operation was supported by the Queqiao-2 relay satellite,” the CNSA said.

The Probe touched down on an impact crater known as the Apollo Basin, located within the sprawling, roughly 2,500-kilometer-diameter South Pole-Aitken Basin. “The choice was made for the Apollo Basin’s potential value of scientific exploration, as well as the conditions of the landing area, including communication and telemetry conditions and the flatness of the terrain,” Huang Hao, a space expert from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) was quoted by Xinhua.

The Chang’e-6 mission will now begin to collect and return samples from the Moon’s far side. Over the next two days, the probe will gather samples using two methods; using a drill to collect subsurface samples and grabbing samples on the surface with a robotic arm.

The lander will then have to robotically pack the samples in an ascent vehicle that made the landing with it. The ascent vehicle will then return to lunar orbit, where it will dock with and transfer the samples to a re-entry capsule.

The re-entry capsule and orbiter will then travel back to Earth’s orbit and separate, allowing the re-entry capsule to make its expected return later this month to the Siziwang Banner Landing Site in China’s rural Inner Mongolia region. 

India became the first country to land near the little-explored lunar south pole region last year when its Chandrayaan-3’s lander, carrying the Pragyaan rover successfully landed there.

The CNSA announced that scientific instruments from France, Italy and the European Space Agency/Sweden will be on board the lander of the Chang’e-6 mission and a Pakistani payload on the orbiter. This is the first time China has included an orbiter from its all-weather ally Pakistan in its Moon mission.

China is reportedly planning to launch two more missions in the Chang-e series as it targets to send astronauts to the moon by 2030.