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What China hopes to gain from unprecedented lunar mission

China has become the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, in territory previously untouched. The move signals China’s intent to broaden space exploration for purposes of both military achievement and scientific discovery. Miles O’Brien explains to William Brangham how China established communication with this remote area, which is characterized by enormous lunar craters.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to that historic first.

    Nearly 50 years after Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong first planted an American flag on the moon, China's space program has just landed a probe on the far side of the moon.

    As the Chinese put it, it opens a new chapter in its exploration.

    William Brangham looks at what that could mean.

  • William Brangham:

    The Chinese probe is called Chang'e 4. And it's named after a moon goddess from Chinese mythology.

    And it landed on the moon's far side yesterday. That's the side we never see here on Earth because of the moon's unique rotation. The lander touched down in the moon's largest and oldest crater and began transmitting the first images we have ever seen from that area.

    Chang'e 4 also deployed a rover on the surface to survey the crater. The landing time and location had been kept secret since the probe went into orbit around the moon on December 12. One reason that astronauts have not landed on that side of the moon before is that it's nearly impossible to communicate directly with Earth.

    To solve that problem, the Chinese launched a satellite last year that can relay information between the probe and Chinese mission control. It's a big moment for the Chinese space program and for future exploration.

    And our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, as always, is here to help us understand what's going on.

    Welcome back.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Hello, William.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what do the Chinese want to do on the far side of the moon?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, there's some reasonably good science to do there.

    There, after all, has not been a lander or rover on that side of the moon. And now there's both there. And the Chinese have a lot that they can look at. They're in the largest crater that we know of in the solar system, 1,500 miles across. What caused that? That's kind of interesting.

    Inside that crater are lots of other smaller craters. It'll tell us a little bit about how dangerous a neighborhood we live in as it relates to near-Earth objects and asteroids.

    They're going to be taking a lot of stunning pictures, some of which we have already seen on the Internet. There's a ground-penetrating radar. And they even have a thing they call a little biosphere, which has seeds, including silkworms as well.

    So…

  • William Brangham:

    Seeds to plant in the ground there?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, I don't think in the actual regolith itself, but they're going to have this terrarium where they're going to try to grow and see what they can grow.

    Ultimately, that should — that signals what they're up to. They would like to put an outpost on the moon. They have said they'd like to do it around 2030. And so this is part of the logical steps in that direction.

  • William Brangham:

    I also understand that, when you are on the far side of the moon, not the dark side, I should point out, that using radio telescopes is much easier. Help me understand why.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the far side of the moon to astronomers and the scientific community in general.

    Radio telescopes, which allow us to look very, very deep into the cosmos, have a problem here on Earth, is there's all this electromagnetic radiation, which you have to cancel out one way or another.

  • William Brangham:

    This is our cell phones, the Wi-Fi, all the racket we make.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You name it, all the stuff. What we're doing right now as we broadcast to people at home interferes with that effort to find these tiny signals which are emanating from things like quasars in the distant cosmos.

    On the far side of the moon, you have none of that. None of those signals from Earth are there. And so it's a very pristine environment to do radio astronomy. And a lot of people had hoped this would happen someday.

    As it happens, this pair of the orbiter and the lander will be able to do some rudimentary radio astronomy on this particular mission.

  • William Brangham:

    One question I know that always comes up, especially with regards to China, which has really become our geopolitical number one rival, is, how much of this is a military-driven operation, how much of this is science?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it is military after all. It's a military program.

    NASA is a civilian program, but it had a lot of military components to it all along. And in the context of the Cold War, it was — it was an instrument of soft power, to say the least.

    So, in China, it's a little, little more straightforward as a military operation, which is why you see these fits and bursts of secrecy, and then public relations trumpeting.

    And they're kind of two minds on it. They want the world to know that they can do this. It is, after all, about superpower status that they hope to attain. But it begins, of course, with military superiority, which they have worked on with great assiduousness.

  • William Brangham:

    So what is it that the Chinese — sketch out your understanding of what their larger goals might be beyond the moon.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, no less than preeminence in space, no less than becoming the superpower, really, if you want to look at the ultimate big picture.

    I think this is really a tortoise and the hare kind of story, potentially. The Chinese didn't put human beings into space until 2003, so they were kind of late to the party. And they have set their goals in a very methodical way with deadlines which are kind of long by our standards, but they have met those deadlines.

    And slowly but surely they built a program to rival any manned space program in the world. There are only three. And so, in the long run, they are looking to put footprints on the moon, maintain an outpost there, and then continue onwards.

    So, is the U.S. the hare in this race? That remains to be seen.

  • William Brangham:

    It's also got to be important for China, just knowing that they don't have to — the vicissitudes of congressional funding and presidential administrations coming and going, I mean, NASA rode that roller coaster of funding for years.

    The Chinese really don't have that problem.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes. And democracy can be messy, can't it?

    And what happens is, every four or eight years, there's a change in plans in space. George W. Bush retired the space shuttle, said, let's go to the moon. President Obama came in and said, no, we're not going to the moon. We have been there, done that. Let's go to Mars.

    Donald Trump comes in says, let's go to the moon. Well, guess what? If you do that every election cycle, you end up going nowhere.

  • William Brangham:

    Picking up on this tortoise and the hare metaphor, is it your sense that this really is a new space race between our nations?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's starting to feel that way, William.

    And I will tell you, if you talk to people in the U.S. space industry privately, they are cheering on the Chinese, because there's an expression in space, no bucks, no Buck Rogers.

    And a space race ultimately leads to funding. And there is that thinking that that competition, that concern, that fear that China might beat the U.S. back to the moon or to Mars, that can lead to funding. So, yes, let's watch the race and see what happens. Who knows?

    That particular spot on the moon or the moon in general could be the perfect refueling station for missions that go much farther into the cosmos.

  • William Brangham:

    Miles O'Brien, thank you very much.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome.

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