The dark side of the moon, a place synonymous with lunacy and mystery, will soon be giving up more of its secrets than you could glean from listening to the Pink Floyd album of the same name backwards.
Even as you read this – a Chinese-built robot is embarking on a mission to unearth the secrets of the hidden face of our ash grey neighbour.
The nature of the far side remained a mystery until relatively recently when in 1959, it was photographed by the Russian’s Luna 3 space probe – with the Soviet Academy of Sciences publishing the first atlas of the hidden lunar surface in 1960.
But the first time humans set eyes upon the surface was when the Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon in 1968 – with Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders reading the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis in their famous Christmas Eve broadcast – and becoming the most far travelled human beings in the history of mankind.
William Anders described the surface thus: “The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have played in for some time. It’s all beat up, no definition, just a lot of bumps and holes.”
But in recent weeks, separated by 238,900 miles – (twice the mileage clocked up by my overworked car in 11 years of solid driving) a rover named Yutu 2 gingerly edged down a ramp from the Chinese Space Agency Chang’e 4 lander to kick up a little dust in the unexplored South Pole Aitken basin – the largest known crater in the solar system.
Even within the realm of space exploration, it’s an impressive technical feat – being the first probe to touch down on the ‘dark’ hemisphere of the lunar surface.
The problem of communicating with the spacecraft as it passed behind the moon was solved by relaying signals through a separately launched satellite called Queqiao – or Magpie Bridge which is maintaining a ‘halo’ orbit on the other side of the moon so that it can communicate with both the lander and Earth.
Excitingly, the project will see the cultivation of the first flower on the moon – a small plant called arabidopsis as well as other biological specimens including cotton, rapeseed, potato, yeast and a colony of fruit flies. Frankly I shouldn’t be surprised if there’s a fully fledged garden centre in place by the time the Americans catch up with them.
It’s also going to be keeping an electronic ear out for the sounds of the Big Bang and probe the moon’s interior – which is every bit as erotic as it sounds.
The far side of the moon is heavily pockmarked by deep craters – unlike the familiar Earth-facing side where a succession of lava flows have smoothed out earlier impacts from a period of heavy meteor bombardment. This is thought to coincide with the formation of life on Earth – and may have played a role in setting the conditions for this to happen.
I’m not saying that life was seeded on Earth by aliens… that would be unscientific.
As a chilling side note, a secret US plan Project A119 was developed in 1958 to detonate a nuclear bomb on the lunar surface. The idea was that flash would have been visible to all right thinking God fearing Americans on Earth and would have acted as a morale booster in the wake of the USSR’s launch of Sputnik.
It was thankfully shelved when some pinko suggested that it might actually provoke a negative reaction.
Just don’t mention it to Donald….