China's lunar rover nabs the first surface photos of the moon's 'dark' side

It's the first time humans have landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

  • China's lunar rover is outfitted with cameras and other equipment designed to collect data from a crater near the moon's southern pole.
  • Studying the far side of the moon could provide scientists with a better understanding of what gave rise to the conditions necessary for life on Earth.
  • In addition to scientific discoveries, China also likely plans to use the data from its mission to better plan future mining operations.

China successfully landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Wednesday, marking a world first that comes just 16 years after the nation launched its first astronaut into space.

Speaking with China Global Television Network, a state-operated English TV channel, spaceflight expert Yang Yuguang, who is affiliated with the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation, said the new feat is "a milestone" for the nation's lunar exploration project.

In the United States, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called the landing "an impressive accomplishment" on Twitter.

The unmanned spacecraft, dubbed the Chang'e 4, is carrying a 300-pound rover that's designed to use cameras, ground-penetrating radar and spectrometers to collect data from the lunar surface, particularly from the Von Kármán crater, the oldest and deepest on the moon. This crater lies in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a 1,600-mile-wide impact crater that was likely formed when a massive asteroid collided with the moon and brought some material from its upper mantle to the surface.

China's mission control are expected to ensure the rover is operating effectively before attempting to collect data. China, whose burgeoning space program launched more rockets into orbit than any other nation in 2018, hopes to use its rover to learn more about the origins and evolution of the moon. In coming years, the Chang'e 5 and 6 missions are scheduled to retrieve lunar samples and bring them back to Earth.

​Why can't we see the far side of the moon?

The answer isn't because the moon doesn't rotate — it does — but rather because the moon's rotational period matches its orbital period around the Earth. In other words, the moon takes about 27 days to orbit our planet once, and during that same time period the moon also rotates around its own axis exactly once. So, only one side of the moon ever faces Earth.

(By the way, calling it the "dark side of the moon" isn't accurate because the far side of the moon gets plenty of sunlight.)

Interestingly, the moon and the Earth weren't always in synch with each other. But over billions of years, the pull of Earth's gravity actually changed the shape of the moon, forming slight bulges in some places. Now, these bulges help keep the moon oriented toward our planet at all times. What's more, the moon's gravity also exerts itself on the Earth, causing ocean tides to shift as the Earth rotates.

In 1959, humans caught the first glimpse of the far side of the moon after the Soviet spacecraft Luna 3 snapped a couple dozen photographs in a landmark mission.

Photos from Luna 3

The images proved what many scientists had hypothesized: The far side of the moon looks very different from the side we always see because it's been bombarded by countless asteroids over the eons, a result of constantly facing the cosmos.

During the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, NASA astronaut Bill Anders described the far of the moon to mission control:

The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time... It's all beat-up, no definition... Just a lot of bumps and holes.

Here's a more recent photo of the far side of the moon, taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2011.

​Why study the far side of the moon?

One goal of China's mission to determine approximately when the South Pole-Aitken Basin was created. Interestingly, the bombardment of the southern region of the moon by asteroids seems to have occurred around the same time life appeared on Earth. This might give scientists clues about what creates the conditions for life on planets.

"Understanding the intensity and timing of the bombardment is important as… that was going on about the same time that life appeared on Earth," Ian Crawford, professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck University, London, told The Guardian. "The Earth has lost its record of that very early time."

In addition to studying the basin, China's lander will also conduct a biology experiment that will see whether plant seeds will germinate and silkworm eggs will hatch in the moon's low gravity. Outside of science, China likely has other motivations: collecting data for future mining operations.

"This is a major achievement technically and symbolically," Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst who wrote about space for the Defense Department's Minerva Research Institute, told the New York Times. "China views this landing as just a stepping stone, as it also views its future manned lunar landing, since its long-term goal is to colonize the moon and use it as a vast supply of energy."

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Robot pizza delivery coming later this year from Domino's

The pizza giant Domino's partners with a Silicon Valley startup to start delivering pizza by robots.

Nuro
Technology & Innovation
  • Domino's partnered with the Silicon Valley startup Nuro to have robot cars deliver pizza.
  • The trial run will begin in Houston later this year.
  • The robots will be half a regular car and will need to be unlocked by a PIN code.

Would you have to tip robots? You might be answering that question sooner than you think as Domino's is about to start using robots for delivering pizza. Later this year a fleet of self-driving robotic vehicles will be spreading the joy of pizza throughout the Houston area for the famous pizza manufacturer, using delivery cars made by the Silicon Valley startup Nuro.

The startup, founded by Google veterans, raised $940 million in February and has already been delivering groceries for Kroger around Houston. Partnering with the pizza juggernaut Domino's, which delivers close to 3 million pizzas a day, is another logical step for the expanding drone car business.

Kevin Vasconi of Domino's explained in a press release that they see these specially-designed robots as "a valuable partner in our autonomous vehicle journey," adding "The opportunity to bring our customers the choice of an unmanned delivery experience, and our operators an additional delivery solution during a busy store rush, is an important part of our autonomous vehicle testing."

How will they work exactly? Nuro explained in its own press release that this "opportunity to use Nuro's autonomous delivery" will be available for some of the customers who order online. Once they opt in, they'll be able to track the car via an app. When the vehicle gets to them, the customers will use a special PIN code to unlock the pizza compartment.

Nuro and its competitors Udelv and Robomart have been focusing specifically on developing such "last-mile product delivery" machines, reports Arstechnica. Their specially-made R1 vehicle is about half the size of a regular passenger car and doesn't offer any room for a driver. This makes it safer and lighter too, with less potential to cause harm in case of an accident. It also sticks to a fairly low speed of under 25 miles an hour and slams on the breaks at the first sign of trouble.

What also helps such robot cars is "geofencing" technology which confines them to a limited area surrounding the store.

For now, the cars are still tracked around the neighborhoods by human-driven vehicles, with monitors to make sure nothing goes haywire. But these "chase cars" should be phased out eventually, an important milestone in the evolution of your robot pizza drivers.

Check out how Nuro's vehicles work: