The robotic Chang’e 4 Mission to the Moon – A milestone for China’s Space Program

The Chang’e 4 is widely recognized in China as one of the most important missions in Chinese Space Program history. The Chang’e 4, a robotic spacecraft mission that is part of China’s Lunar Exploration Program’s second phase, was responsible for humanity’s first soft landing on the far side of the Moon. (More about China’s Moon mission here.)

What was the Chang’e 4’s mission and purpose?

Just like its predecessors, the mission is named after Chang’e, the Chinese Moon goddess. It was part of the CLEP (Chinese Lunar Exploration Program), that aimed to conduct a four phased plan as part of its Moon mission. The Chang’e 4 was part of the later part of the second phase of the plan. The second phase was achieving soft landing on the Lunar surface and deploying a rover on the Moon. The Chang’e 3, its predecessor, also managed to make this soft landing, but the Chang’e 4 took it to the next level by landing on the far side of the Moon, and that too first time ever globally, setting new records. The Chang’e 4 was originally supposed to be a backup plan for the Chang’e 3, but its success led to change of mission parameters and various delays for the Chang’e 4. The success of Chang’e 4 instantly paved way for the lunar sample return mission part of phase 3 of the CLEP, Chang’e 5. (More about Chang’e 5 here.)

The Launch of Chang’e 4 mission

As direct communication was impossible with the far side of the Moon due to the transmissions being blocked by the Moon itself, the CNSA (China National Space Administration) had to launch a communications relay satellite placed at a clear view from both the Earth and the far side landing site. This relay satellite, the Queqiao, was launched on 20 May 2018 and put in a Halo orbit around the Earth-Moon L2(Lagrange 2) point. After that, the main Chang’e 4 lander and rover were launched on 7 December 2018, and both the launches from the Xinchang Satellite Launch Center using the traditional and reliable Long March 3B rockets. (More about the Long March series rockets here.)

Where did China’s Chang’e 4 land and what instruments was it carrying?

The lander and rover carried a variety of research payloads, including a life science payload and a limited chemical analysis capabilities, to examine the geophysics of the landing zone.

  • The lander was equipped with many Cameras, low frequency spectrometers, a neutron dosimeter, and a protected Lunar Micro Ecosystem which was meant to test weather plants would grow in a protected environment in the module, which was terminated after 9 days instead of the planned 100 days due to some temperature complications.
  • The rover was equipped with a panoramic camera, a Luunar penetrating radar, infrared imaging spectrometer, and other small neutral analyzers to detect presence of water on the surface or air around.

The Chang’e 4 landed at a crater called Von Karman in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the Moon’s far side, which had yet to be explored by landers. The place has both symbolic and scientific significance. Qian Xuesen, the creator of China’s space programme, had Theodore von Karman as his PhD advisor. On 3 January 2019, at 02:26 UTC, the landing craft made history by becoming the first spacecraft to land on the Moon’s far side. About 12 hours after landing, the Yutu-2 rover was launched.

The Yutu-2 rover and its journey – Is it still working?

Yutu-2 was CNSA’s Chang’e 4 mission’s robotic lunar rover, and it was the most critical. Yutu-2 is the first lunar rover to traverse the far side of the Moon and the most long-lived lunar rover. “Jade Rabbit” is the Chinese translation. Yutu-2 had travelled over 1,000 metres over the surface of the Moon as of January 2022. The expedition cost between 500 million and 1.2 billion Yuan (about 72.6 million and 1.2 billion USD, respectively) (about 172.4 million U.S. dollars).

According to the China Lunar Exploration Program, Chang’e 4, Yutu 2, and its scientific equipment are still performing well despite the alternating profound cold and scorching heat of lunar nights and days, high solar radiation, and abrasive lunar regolith. During the lunar night, which lasts around 14.5 Earth days, the solar-powered spacecraft shut down on a regular basis. Yutu 2 has broken the previous record for a rover functioning on the moon’s surface, which was set by the Soviet Union’s robotic Lunokhod 1 rover, which lasted 321 days. Yutu 2 is currently on its way to a faraway basaltic location, although getting there might take years. On September 28, 2021, the Yutu 2 passed the 1,000-day mark and is still on its way. During its lunar journey, the Yutu 2 rover has traversed a total of 2,754 feet (839.37 metres) of lunar terrain and collected 3,632.01 terabytes of data.


Chang’e 4 was intended to be a backup to Chang’e 3, providing a second chance at a lunar landing and rover mission if the first failed. After Chang’e 3’s successful landing in 2013, Chang’e 4 was repurposed for a more ambitious mission. Due to a short circuit, the first Yutu rover aboard Chang’e 3 lost its capacity to drive after only two lunar days. Yutu 2’s circuitry was altered to prevent pebbles from destroying it, and it has shown to be considerably more robust. The CNSA and its Lunar mission program is committed to completing its 4 phase mission and the future missions to the Moon in the coming years, the Chang’e 6, 7, and 8 will facilitate the 4th phase of setting up an International Lunar Research station.

(More about future of China’s space missions here.)

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