China just made history by landing on the far side of the Moon

Image: EPA-EFE/China National Space
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft touched down this morning in a crater on the far side of the Moon—a first for space exploration—Chinese state broadcaster CCTV confirmed at noon local time on Thursday (Jan. 3).

The manufacturer of the spacecraft also confirmed the successful landing on social platform Weibo (link in Chinese). The lander touched down at 10:26am Beijing time.

Chang’e-4 took off on Dec. 8 local time and spent 26 days in space before landing in the Von Kármán crater, a 186-kilometer-wide (110 miles) region, located in an even larger impact crater called the South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin that is 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) wide. Although Chang’e-4 reached lunar orbit just days after taking off, the solar-powered aircraft had to wait until sunlight returned to the region to land and begin operations.

China hinted on Sunday (Dec. 30) that a landing was imminent, after its space agency said the probe was making final preparations for landing.

Details of the date and time of the landing were kept under wraps until the last moment, keeping space program trackers, and even scientists at centers that had contributed to the moon mission, guessing until the last moment. State-run media announced the landing earlier today in tweets, which were later deleted, likely because China wanted the first official confirmation of the historic landing to come via the state broadcaster.

The potential landing sites.
The potential landing sites.
Image: Phil Stooke/screengrab via Andrew Jones for Planetary

China hopes its Moon rover and its instruments can add to our knowledge of the kinds of events taking place in the solar system billions of years ago, and carry out experiments on how to sustain life on the Moon. The mission is also hoping to listen for signals from the universe’s early days using a radio antenna on board the Queqiao, the relay communication satellite that’s helping Chang’e-4 talk to scientists on earth.

Chang’e-4’s landing is the second significant space advance in 2019 after NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent back pictures of Ultima Thule this week from the edge of the solar system, the farthest object ever explored, some 4 billion miles from the Sun.

Soon after the news was confirmed, congratulations started pouring in.

Martin Wieser, of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, which developed an instrument that will investigate how solar wind interacts with the lunar surface, called the landing a “great step,” but noted that tricky hours lie ahead, as the lander deploys its rover and sets up instruments.

“The challenges are not over yet: now all systems on the lander and rover need to be commissioned on the surface and it will take a while until we will get the first science data,” Wieser told Quartz. “But with the successful landing we are very confident that we will get there!”

Philip Stooke, an associate physics and astronomy professor at Canada’s Western University who studies planetary mapping, said he was looking forward to seeing the rover drive on the Moon. “This is a great achievement and a way for China to show the world what it can do,” he said.

China’s next step is to launch Chang’e-5 to get samples from the Moon’s near side later this year. China’s ultimate goal is to send humans back to the Moon, a goal it could probably achieve a little over a decade from now, according to Brian Harvey, author of China In Space, a history of China’s space program.

In an email to Quartz, Harvey called today’s landing “a daring mission that required the highest levels of engineering skill,” noting ahead of the confirmation, “This is the first time that the Chinese space program has done something that no other country has done before.”

This story was updated Jan. 3 with additional commentary on the landing.

Looking for more in-depth coverage? Sign up to become a member and read more in-depth coverage of the history of moon exploration.