China Gears Up for Ambitious Landing on the Moon’s Far Side

The biggest problem is how to talk to a rover whose radio will be hidden from the Earth

4 min read
Image: Xinhua/Alamy
Touchdown: Humans will steer China’s Chang’e-4 lander through the first half of its descent to the moon’s surface. Then, the spacecraft will complete its landing autonomously.
Image: Xinhua/Alamy

In December, China will attempt the first soft landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. No official date has been announced, but the mission is rumored for launch around 8 December, with a landing to follow late in the month.

Mission scientists say the capability to precisely land on a specific spot on the moon and conduct autonomous exploration from there will lay a foundation for future lunar and deep-space exploration, including expanded missions to the lunar poles in the early 2020s. But their ambitious effort requires new and improved communications, navigation, and landing technologies.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.

NASA

For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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