Fifty years ago, NASA made a great Christmas present to all space enthusiasts with Apollo 8.


For the first time, humans went around the Moon and sent awesome images back.

Earthrise, a photograph taken from lunar orbit by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, was a great Christmas present for humanity and “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Everyone had great expectations for the first human landing on the Moon, which happened a few months after Apollo 8…

… and the colonization of the Moon, which didn’t happen.

Now, Chinese lunar exploration mission Chang’e 4 is set to achieve the first soft-landing on the far side of the Moon. The robotic lander and rover were launched on 7 December 2018, and landing is scheduled for the first week of January 2019. A communication relay satellite to support the mission named Queqiao, which had been previously launched in May 2018, is now operational.

Sun Zezhou, chief designer of Chang’e-4, told China Central Television (CCTV), as reported by GBTimes.:

“For future exploration of other planets, we need data relay. Actually, the relay satellites can provide a good solution, for example, we are working on data relay between the Earth and the Moon now, and will work on data relay from Mars in the future. All these will contribute to the future advancement of technology and aerospace engineering,”

Earlier this week the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), in a social media post (Chinese), stated that Chang’e-4 has had several “phone calls” with Queqiao while around the Moon, GBTimes reports.

Chang’e 4 will land in the 110-mile-wide Von Kármán crater on the far side of the moon, New York Times reports, adding intriguing details: “The instruments will probe the structure of the rocks beneath the spacecraft and study the effects of the solar wind striking the lunar surface.”

“Chang’e-4 will also test the ability of making radio astronomy observations from the far side of the moon, without the effects of noise and interference from Earth.”

Sun Zezhou explains that the far side of the Moon “can well shield the Earth’s own low-frequency radiation and create a better environment with low frequency and noise.” New York Times adds:

“According to the Xinhua news agency, Chang’e-4 is also carrying an intriguing biology experiment to see if plant seeds will germinate and silkworm eggs will hatch in the moon’s low gravity.”

The Von Kármán crater where Chang’e 4 will land is located within an even larger impact crater called South Pole–Aitken basin, which contains the lunar south pole. It’s worth noting that locations near the lunar south pole, such as the Shackleton crater, have been proposed by space agencies including NASA and ESA as interesting candidates for lunar outposts. Therefore, the data returned by Chang’e 4 could be very important for future lunar missions, and prepare the way for the colonization of the Moon.

In fact, China has has ambitious space plans, which include crewed missions to the Moon.

This is the Christmas magic of Chang’e 4.

No, it’s not Apollo 8 — not yet.

But look at the Moon in the black sky, and think of the Chinese robotic explorer Chang’e 4, meaningfully named after the Chinese lunar goddess, which is flying around the moon on Christmas waiting to land, in preparation for a permanent human presence on the Moon and beyond.

And let’s hope that also “the West” wakes up again.

Cover picture from Xinhuanet, Earthrise picture from Wikimedia Commons.