China lands on moon’s far side in historic sample-retrieval mission

Mission involves many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulty, says space agency.

BEIJING (Reuters): China landed an uncrewed spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Sunday, overcoming a key hurdle in its landmark mission to retrieve the world’s first rock and soil samples from the dark lunar hemisphere.

The landing elevates China’s space power status in a global rush to the moon, where countries including the United States are hoping to exploit lunar minerals to sustain long-term astronaut missions and moon bases within the next decade.

The Chang’e-6 craft, equipped with an array of tools and its own launcher, touched down in a gigantic impact crater called the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the moon’s space-facing side at 6:23 a.m. Beijing time (2223 GMT), the China National Space Administration said.

The mission “involves many engineering innovations, high risks and great difficulty”, the agency said in a statement, opens new tab on its website. “The payloads carried by the Chang’e-6 lander will work as planned and carry out scientific exploration missions.”

The successful mission is China’s second on the far side of the moon, a region no other country has reached. The side of the moon perpetually facing away from the Earth is dotted with deep and dark craters, making communications and robotic landing operations more challenging.

Given these challenges, lunar and space experts involved in the Chang’e-6 mission described the landing phase as a moment where the chance of failure is the highest.

“Landing on the far side of the moon is very difficult because you don’t have line-of-sight communications, you’re relying on a lot of links in the chain to control what is going on, or you have to automate what is going on,” said Neil Melville-Kenney, a technical officer at the European Space Agency working with China on one of the Chang’e-6 payloads.

“Automation is very difficult especially at high latitudes because you have long shadows which can be very confusing for landers,” Melville added.

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