The Western world will watch a red moon rise on Sunday night.
The super blood moon eclipse neatly coincides with a history-making fortnight of Chinese space exploration.
The red-flagged probe, Chang'e-4, landed on the far side of the moon, deploying its six-wheeled rover to conquer unexplored realms.
Image of the Chang’e-4 lander taken by the panoramic camera on the Jade Rabbit rover.Credit:China National Space Administration
Western space scientists watched on with genuine enthusiasm as the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program achieved the first soft landing on the far side of the moon, and sent back detailed images. This week, the first green leaves sprouted on the moon.
Matthias Maurer, a German astronaut with the European Space Agency who has trained with Chinese astronauts, told the Sydney Morning Herald he is convinced the success of Chang'e-4 will boost space co-operation between Europe and China.
Even NASA, forbidden by Washington from collaborating with the Chinese, got into the act – exchanging data with the Chinese National Space Administration and using the US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to watch Chang'e-4, Chinese scientists revealed this week.
China said it has agreed to a request from NASA to use Chang'e-4, and the innovative "Magpie Bridge" relay satellite which transmitted the images from the far side of the moon to Earth, in future US moon missions.
Chinese space scientists spoke publicly about the moon mission for the first time this week.
"During the landing, the last 100 metres was thrilling," said Wu Weiren, designer of the lunar program. Chang'e-4 landed on a slope surrounded by four perilous craters. "It was pretty accurate."
Chang'e-4's chief engineer, Sun Zezhou, explained the probe hovered, and then autonomously avoided the craters it detected using lasers.
But Sun, Wu and the team at ground control didn't know of Chang'e-4's success at the time, because of the delayed transmission of data from the moon's far side.
A screen at the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre shows the lander of the Chang’e-4 probe and the rover Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2) taking photos of each other.Credit:Jin Liwang
"Why did we go to the far side of the moon to explore? Two reasons. From a scientific viewpoint, the far side of the moon, especially the landing zone, is the oldest crater. Its geological structure and composition may be more representative of the age of the moon," says Sun.
Second, the far side of the moon offered more favourable conditions for low-frequency radio observations of space, or listening for the earliest sounds of the universe.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, People's Daily, offered a third reason: The party has set the goal of being at the forefront of the world's space powers by 2030.
China started late in the space race, achieving its first astronaut in space, Yang Liwei, in 2003. Chinese astronauts made their first spacewalk in 2008.
NASA named its Apollo moon missions, conducted almost 50 years ago, after a mythical Greek god. The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has named its lunar probes after the moon goddess of Chinese mythology, Chang'e, and the rovers after her pet rabbit. Chang'e-3 reached the moon with the first Jade Rabbit in 2013.
China was only the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to make a soft landing on the moon.
But China wanted its own "first". The Chang'e-4 mission has racked this up.
First growth on the moon
This week cotton seeds sprouted, and potato and rapeseed plants began to germinate, the first biological growth experiments on the moon. They died, on schedule, as the frozen lunar night descended late this week.
"We successfully realised the first green leaf that has grown on the moon in human history. This will provide the research foundation for human beings to build a lunar base in the future," declared the dean of Chongqing University's Institute of Advanced Technology, Professor Xie Gengxin, at another press conference.
The first green leaf sprouting on the moon.Credit:China National Space Administration
Chang'e-4 carried a bioscience tank measuring 17.3 centimetres by 19.8 centimetres contained six species – cotton, rapeseed, potato, Arabidopsis, yeast and fruit flies.
The tank had a high-pressure seal to withstand the month-long space flight and moon landing, and a camera to record the experiments. China's ground control sent a command for water to be released 30 minutes after landing. For the next nine days, temperature, data and 170 photographs of the growing seeds were sent back to ground control.
The internal temperature of the tank was kept between -60 degrees Celsius and 80 degrees Celsius, "a stable temperature suitable for living", according to the Chonqing University scientists who designed the experiment.
Scientists wanted to see how the seeds grew under low gravity and high radiation. Potato is likely to become a staple food for humans to survive in space, the Chinese scientists said. Rapeseed oil is likely to be an important cooking fuel. Fruit flies have short growth cycles. Yeast is food for fruit flies.
The tank contained a micro-ecosystem of producers, consumers and decomposers. The experiment was switched off to save battery power as the lunar night arrived.
Science in action
Chang'e-4 carried four international and six Chinese payloads or experiments.
Astrophysicist and ANU research fellow at the Mount Stromlo Observatory, Brad Tucker, says an experiment from the Netherlands tested how quiet the far side of the moon was for radio telescopes.
"This has long been an idea of astronomers and so it was great to see it tested … So just like NASA missions, there is a huge involvement from international groups."
Australia's Parkes radio telescope famously was involved in providing the televised images of NASA's great leap for mankind in 1969, as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
The Parkes Observatory in central NSW provided television images of the first moon landing.Credit:CSIRO
Tucker says nowadays, Australian space scientists hold regular meetings with collaborators in China, discussing projects from radio astronomy to optical astronomy and space missions.
"When it comes to astronomy space, China has quickly levelled to the same scale as the US, Europe, and Russia."
The next step in China's moon program is to send Chang'e-5 to the moon by year's end to collect samples and return to Earth with them.
"All the scientists are interested in getting access to these fresh new samples from a site they haven't been at during Apollo missions," says Mauer.
Another two probes will explore and take samples from the moon's south pole, the likely site of a moon research base. Chang'e-8 will test technology that could be used to build a moon base.
Deputy chief commander of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, Wu Yanhua, said that like China, the US, Russia and Europe are all considering a moon research station. China planned to test technologies that could be used to build houses, such as 3D printing, on the moon as part of a multinational base.
"No matter if it is robots or humans to the moon, if there are more frequent explorations and development tasks, there should be infrastructure to support routine exploration," he said.
A long-term base would need to be built to endure temperatures ranging from minus 180 degrees at night to more than 100 degrees during the day.
Tucker says: "People often ask why we never went back to the moon, and that was because we had no reason. Now groups do, that is for more experiments and using it as a gateway to Mars. Everyone has come to the conclusion that being able to get resources and establish a refuelling stop around the moon is the easiest way to Mars."
Technology has come a long way since the first moon landing.
He expects multiple countries to have a large presence on the moon by the end of the next decade.
But international co-operation on the moon base could be hampered by the US political bar on NASA working with China.
The so-called Wolf Amendment, introduced in 2011, links NASA funding to a prohibition on NASA co-operating with China without explicit approval from Congress. Chinese astronauts are prohibited in the International Space Station.
Before the earthly technology trade war between the Trump Administration and China worsened, dialogue between the two nations' space programs appeared to be warming.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine had met with his Chinese counterpart, CNSA administrator Zhang Kejian, at an international conference in Germany last October.
Bridenstine, who this month congratulated China's space program on achieving a "first for humanity", told Zhang last year he would welcome greater sharing of scientific data with China.
Chinese state media reported as front page news this week that former US astronaut and one-time NASA chief Charles Bolden was calling for co-operation with China's space program. "My fear is the US may be left out," Bolden was quoted as saying.
The European Space Agency is training with Chinese astronauts ahead of the expected start date of China's space station, Heavenly Palace, in 2022.
By then, the International Space Station, built through collaboration between the US and Russia, will be retired.
The European Space Agency began developing ties with its Chinese counterpart in 2012.
The International Space Station. Credit:Photo: NASA via Bloomberg
Maurer was one of the first European astronauts to train in the Chinese space program in 2017, doing sea survival training alongside seven "taikonauts".
After a fortnight of exercises, a space capsule was placed in the ocean, and the astronauts had to survive in the water for hours until they were rescued by helicopter. Maurer marvelled at the inflatable rubber boots.
A year earlier, a Chinese taikonaut had spent six days in a cave in Europe in an ESA scientific program. "We learn how to work together as an international team, in a dangerous and difficult environment in a stressful situation. The Chinese taikonaut integrated perfectly," he says.
Li Guoping, secretary general of China's National Space Administration, said China was working with Germany, France, Russia and the European Space Agency on manned space exploration and hoped for international co-operation on developing equipment, astronaut training and space medicine for the Chinese space station.
Maurer says that collaboration with more international partners was needed because space exploration required the best technology – and it is expensive.
China, in its pursuit of space glory, appears to have deep pockets.
Wu Yanhua on Tuesday compared the cost of sending Chang'e-4 to the moon with Beijing's rampant subway construction, per kilometre.
"Lunar exploration and deep space exploration are a national behaviour. It is an act of contributing to the exploration of the mysteries of the universe by human beings," he said.
But China's space officials also say they are open to more opportunities for international collaboration and investment in space exploration and commercial space projects alike.
One lucrative area is likely to be commercial satellite launches using the Long March 6 carrier rocket.
A deal reportedly worth "hundreds of millions of US dollars" was signed on Wednesday with an Argentine company for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation to place 90 small satellites into orbit.
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