• 승인 2019.05.16 13:55
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During the opening days of the New Year, while most of us were still getting over the excesses of the festive period, a huge gap in the exploration of the Solar System was being quietly filled. We’d previously sent probes to every planet in the Solar System, had close encounters with comets, landed on asteroids and touched down on one of Saturn’s moons. On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons probe even flew past a Kuiper Belt object more than 6.5 billion kilometres from the Sun.

Yet all these things happened before we landed anything on the far side of our nearest celestial neighbour, the Moon. This feat was finally claimed by the Chinese Space Agency with the successful lowering of their Chang’e 4 mission onto the Moon’s surface on 3 January. Just 12 hours later, the Yutu 2 rover trundled down a ramp to imprint its tyre tracks in the lunar dust on the Moon’s far side for the first time. “It’s a hugely significant moment in the history of space exploration,” says Prof Ian Crawford, a planetary scientist at Birkbeck University of London. Chang’e is named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon, with Yutu being her pet white rabbit that is believed to be visible on the surface of the Moon, much like the man in the Moon here in the West.

Chang’e 4 marks a return to the Moon’s surface after years of human indifference, as we’ve strived to explore the rest of the Solar System. Interest in all things lunar began to wane after the Apollo missions ended in 1972, with even robotic missions to the Moon’s surface fizzling out by 1976. And so it remained until December 2013, when China landed the first Yutu rover on the near side of the Moon as part of the Chang’e 3 mission, making them only the third nation after the US and Russia to successfully dispatch and land a lunar rover.

But the Chang’e 3 mission wasn’t without its difficulties, as a technical fault hampered the rover’s movement not long after landing. The suspected culprit was more frequent encounters with rocks than2 originally envisioned. Considering these issues, the Chinese space agency’s subsequent move was a brave one. “It’s quite impressive that their next attempt was on the far side of the Moon,” says Crawford.

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