The Chang’e 4 spacecraft, launched by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on December 8, 2018, has reportedly entered orbit around the Moon. It is expected to land on the lunar surface sometime in January 2019.
Closer to the moon
The probe has traveled 240,000 miles to reach the Moon’s orbit. When it was just 80 miles above the lunar surface, the probe fired its retrorockets and positioned itself in a stable elliptical orbit. The mission controllers are currently testing all systems aboard the craft. Once the results come out positive, a landing attempt will be made next month.
A communications relay satellite named Queqiao was launched by the CNSA in May this year and is already in operational orbit about 40,000 miles away from the Moon. Once Chang’e 4 lands on the far side of the moon, it will not be in sight of Earth. As such, a relay satellite like Queqiao is required for Chang’e 4 to communicate back home.
CNSA decided to land the craft on the far side of the moon since it will be free from ionosphere interference from the Earth. The craft contains instruments and experiments from several countries, such as Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The first Chang’e lunar mission was launched in 2007 and was tasked with orbiting the Moon to create a topographical map of its surface. Next year, the space agency plans on sending the Chang’e 5 mission to collect lunar soil and rocks. The craft has been named Chang’e after the traditional moon goddess in Chinese mythology.
A security threat
In addition to sending probes to the Moon, China also has plans for building a permanent base. The construction of a robot-manned lunar base is expected to start around 2025 as per media reports. By 2030, the Chinese aim to achieve a manned landing on the lunar surface.
However, Beijing’s attempts at sending probes to the Moon is being viewed with suspicion by U.S. intelligence agencies. Many believe that China may eventually militarize its space assets, including those on the surface or orbiting the Moon. A case in point is the Queqiao lunar satellite that is currently positioned at the Lagrangian 2 (L2) point on the far side of the Moon. This allows the satellite to potentially zoom past the Moon and sneak up on U.S. communications and intelligence satellites in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO).
“You could fly some sort of a weapon around the Moon and it comes back — it could literally come at [objects] in GEO… and we would never know because there is nothing watching in that direction… Why do you need a relay satellite flying around L2? So you can communicate with something that’s going to land on the other side of the Moon — or so you can fly around the other side of the Moon? And what would that mean for our assets at GEO?” Jeff Gossel, Senior Intelligence Engineer in the Space and Missile Analysis Group at the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center, said in a statement (Defense One).
Though the chances of Beijing using their lunar program assets for military uses against U.S. satellites is slim, American security agencies are said to be looking into the matter to develop a counter to such potential threats.