Back on December 8 without any fanfare from American media, China successfully launched a rocket into space. Launched from the the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is sending the Chang’e-4 (CE-4) probe to the moon. Unlike all other attempts by all other countries before it, China is hoping for an engineering miracle: to land at the at the Von Kármán crater on the dark side of the moon. The spacecraft consists of both a lander and a rover; after a successful landing, China expects to explore a part of the moon during the first days of 2019.
This space mission is extraordinary because of how difficult it is. Due to tidal locking, the “dark” side of the Moon never faces the earth. For prior missions to the Moon, NASA astronauts visited the “lit” side of the Moon that faces Earth. In addition to always being in view of Earth, it’s easier to communicate, send data, and control spacecraft directly to/from Earth from the side of the Moon that faces it.
To make sure China could keep in contact with its spacecraft, it successfully launched the Queqiao last May, inserting into an orbit around the second Earth-moon Lagrange point about 50,000 miles above the Moon.
According to the China National Space Administration, the lander and rover are equipped with cameras and scientific payloads to analyze the lunar surface geology and subsurface, solar wind interactions and carry out low-frequency radio observations.
While China is making progress with lunar exploration, the United States is struggling. NASA’s Office of Inspector General faulted the agency for huge cost over-runs and busted timelines weeks ago. Known as the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s attempt to return to the Moon has hit serious budget and time issues in recent years. NASA originally aimed to launch the first SLS flight,an uncrewed test called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), in December 2017. The first crewed SLS-Orion flight, EM-2, was targeted for mid-2021. However, the rocket isn’t even done being made or tested. As a result of a variety of issues, the OIG reports that NASA will not be able to launch EM-1 earlier than June 2020 with crewed launches happening in the mid 2020’s. During the joint Senate-NASA presentation in September 2011, it was stated that the SLS program had a projected development cost of $18 billion through 2017, with $10 billion for the SLS rocket, $6 billion for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and $2 billion for upgrades to the launch pad and other facilities at Kennedy Space Center. However, those costs have ballooned, costing nearly double what was originally expected.
While NASA is spending time and money to launch SLS, private companies are also in a space race of their own to get science and people to the Moon’s surface. SpaceX is planning to launch a commercial rocket around the Moon, carrying passengers, including Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, in 2023.