The first-ever successful landing on the far side of the moon took place just last month – January 3, 2019 – when the the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) safely set down its Chang’e 4 spacecraft. One month later, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) passed over the spot where the Chinese spacecraft and rover rested on the lunar surface. It rolled 70 degrees to the west to acquire the spectacular image above.
NASA released the LRO images on February 8, 2019. The first new image – shown above – was taken on January 30, 2019. It shows the landing site in an oblique limb-shot view, looking across the floor of Von Kármán crater. Only the lander, not the smaller rover (called Yutu-2), was visible in this image, since LRO was over 124 miles (200 km) from the area at the time. Even the lander was only a few pixels across.
Both the rover and lander are visible, however, in the second image taken the next day. The rover only shows as two tiny pixels, but it is there, as well as shadows from both the lander and rover. See the image below.
The images were released at the website of the LROC, which stands for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. It’s a system of three cameras mounted on the orbiter that capture high resolution black-and-white images – and moderate resolution multi-spectral images – of the moon’s surface.
Chang’e 4 landed on January 3 at 02:26 UTC (10:26 a.m. Beijing time; January 2 at 10:26 p.m. U.S. East Coast time). The event was covered extensively on Chinese media and by some media in the West. Jason Davis at the Planetary Society said:
Chang’e 4 itself launched on December 8, 2018. It entered lunar orbit four days later, where mission controllers spent 22 days testing the spacecraft’s systems, waiting for the sun to rise at the landing site. [On January 2-3, 2019] Chang’e 4 successfully de-orbited and landed.
The landing site is within Von Kármán crater – about 110 miles (180 km) in diameter – on the far side of the moon. After the crater first formed, its floor was covered by eruptions of basaltic lava, similar to the eruptions in Hawaii last summer. Scientists are wondering those basaltic rocks are any different from the basaltic rocks on the near near of the moon. Chang’e 4 should be able to help answer that question.
Since the crater is so large, it contains many much smaller craters inside it. Most of those are less than 660 feet (200 meters) in diameter, dating back more than 3 billion years. Interestingly, because of the high density of small craters, when a new crater would form, it would not increase the total number of crater much, if at all, since any new crater would tend to erase an older crater below it.
It’s also thought that some of the moon’s mantle – the layer just beneath the crust – may even have been exposed when Von Kármán crater formed.
The Yutu 2 rover was deployed about 12 hours after the landing of Chang’e 4. A few days later, the rover entered standby mode – i.e. “took a nap” – to protect itself from temperatures reaching close to 200 degrees Celsius. It later woke up again and continued its study of the landing area.
Bottom line: We’ve seen the fantastic views of the lunar surface from the Chang’e 4 landing site on the moon’s far side – for the first time ever – and now we also have the first high-resolution images of the landing area from lunar orbit, thanks to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.