“Man on the moon,” cried Walter Cronkite to an amazed world fifty years ago this summer. Although cosmologically, a mere blink of the eye, the USA celebrates the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission marking Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon. Meanwhile, China quietly explores the mysterious lunar farside, laying the foundation for the human species’ first moonbase and a radio telescope that will provide an unfettered window on the universe.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” ” Armstrong said, immortally, as he stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Module on July 20, 1969, pressing his gray-and-white boot into the ancient lunar dust.
“The footprints are still there, the striped tread of Neil Armstrong’s boots, caked into dust,” writes Jill Lapore in today’s New York Times. “There’s no atmosphere on the moon, no wind and no water. Superfast micrometeorites, miniature particles traveling at 33,000 miles per hour, are bombarding the surface of the moon all the time, but they’re so infinitesimal that they erode things only at the more or less unobservable rate of 0.04 inches every million years. So unless those footprints are hit by a meteor and blasted into a crater, they’ll last for tens of millions of years.”
The Chang’e-4 probe, launched on December 8, landed on the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on January 3, 2019, setting the groundwork for a human return to the moon, which includes several manned missions, building a permanent space station and gateway-base to Mars.
China named the landing site of its Chang’e-4 lunar probe “Statio Tianhe” –after the Chinese name for the Milky Way Galaxy for the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon. Before “Statio Tianhe,” only one place is listed on lunar maps as “Statio,” namely “Statio Tranquilitatis” (Tranquillity Base), the site where the Apollo 11 crew members of the United States landed and walked on in 1969.
The moon’s far hemisphere is never directly visible from Earth and while it has been photographed, with the first images appearing in 1959, it has never been explored. Earlier reports from the Xinhua news agency hinted that China may be considering the construction of a pioneering radio telescope on the moons virgin far side, which will give it an unobstructed window on the cosmos. It was confirmed June, 2016 when an agreement was announced between the Netherlands and China, that a Dutch-built radio antenna would travel aboard the Chang’e 4 satellite ushering in a new era of radio astronomy allowing for the study of objects that might otherwise be invisible or hidden in other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“Radio astronomers study the universe using radio waves, light coming from stars and planets, for example, which is not visible with the naked eye,” commented Heino Falke – a professor of Astroparticle Physics and Radio Astronomy at the Netherlands Radboud University. “We can receive almost all celestial radio wave frequencies here on Earth. We cannot detect radio waves below 30 MHz, however, as these are blocked by our atmosphere. It is these frequencies in particular that contain information about the early universe, which is why we want to measure them.”
China’s first Mars probe is scheduled to be launched on a Long March 5 by 2020 from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, South China’s Hainan Province. The probe will orbit, land and deploy a rover on the Red Planet.