B.C. astronomer explains importance of Chinese moon landing

Ken Tapping, astronomer at DRAO, discusses why astronauts are refocusing on moon exploration

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory.                                Photo courtesy David Szabo

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. Photo courtesy David Szabo

China’s Chang’e 4 lunar lander successfully touched down on the far side of the moon on Jan. 3 at 10:26 a.m.

According to Ken Tapping, an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory located in the South Okanagan (White Lake), this is a feat the world should be paying attention to.

“If you start putting Xs on the moon showing where we’ve actually landed spacecraft, all the other nations have landed on this side of the moon,” said Tapping. “The only spacecraft that we’ve put on the other side of the moon are ones that we’ve crashed.”

Related: China just landed on the far side of the moon

Tapping explained this is because the moon blocks radio signals from transmitting back to Earth, essentially cutting off communication between the spacecraft and the command station.

“Radio waves travel in straight lines, so if you put a spacecraft on the other side of the moon, its radio waves are not going to get to you,” said Tapping. “So it was much easier to put spacecraft on this side of the moon. And the other thing is that we know a lot more about this side of the moon.”

Tapping said as the moon orbits around the Earth, it rotates once, meaning we only ever see the same side of the moon.

“Deciding where to land a spacecraft on the other side of the moon is hard, and the Chinese have done it. In order to get the radio signal from their lunar lander to the Earth, they had to launch a communications satellite into orbit around the moon,” said Tapping. “This would be in a position in its orbit where it could pick up the signals from the landers and, when it can see the Earth, transmits the signals back. So this is a double-barrelled sort of project.”

Related: Ex-astronaut Thirsk to help define Canada’s place in Mars mission

The communications satellite was launched first, with the lunar lander following on Dec. 8, 2018. The six-wheeled rover has many tasks ahead on its mission to provide researchers a clearer understanding of our planet’s moon.

In this photo provided Jan. 3, 2019, by China National Space Administration via Xinhua News Agency, the first image of the moon’s far side taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe. A Chinese spacecraft on Thursday, Jan. 3, made the first-ever landing on the far side of the moon, state media said. The lunar explorer Chang’e 4 touched down at 10:26 a.m., China Central Television said in a brief announcement at the top of its noon news broadcast.(China National Space Administration/Xinhua News Agency via AP)

“The Chinese have put a tiny biosphere in the lander — so a tiny, enclosed world populated by various plants, seeds and fruit flies — and what they want to do is see how well these creatures live on the moon,” said Tapping. “They’ll be protected in their atmosphere inside the enclosure. They will also have temperature control against the extremes of lunar temperature.

“They will be exposed to the radiation that hits the moon from the Sun, we’re protected from this by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. So we want to see how these creatures survive and I suppose this will be the first step towards looking at the viability of a manned lunar base.”

Tapping said it is no surprise that nations are once again turning their attentions to exploring and researching the moon, since it will inevitably aid future researchers in exploring the rest of the solar system.

Related: VIDEO: NASA says it has landed a spacecraft on Mars

“After Apollo 17, no more people went to the moon. So no one has been on the moon for about 40 years now. We’re starting to look at going back now for two reasons and one is for science,” said Tapping. “And the other one is if we’re going to explore the rest of the solar system, when we send a space probe out (from Earth) we are using most of the fuel getting if off the Earth because of its gravity.

“If we can make spacecraft on the moon and launch them from there, we don’t have to do anywhere near that amount of work. Also, because the moon doesn’t have any atmosphere, we don’t need to bother with all the streamlining that we normally do — the spacecraft can be almost any sort of shape because there’s no air drag.”

Tapping said today’s spacecraft also usually need to fold up “like Origami” to fit inside their aerodynamic shell, which has led to equipment failures in the past. Chang’e 4 will study lunar wind and radiation, as well as conduct low frequency radio astronomy observations free of Earth interference.

Tapping remembers following the events of the first lunar landing in 1969 and can’t understand why there was ever a conspiracy theory based on the myth that it didn’t happen. He said at the time, he and his colleagues at a radio telescope in Britain were running back and forth from looking at the moon in their parking lot and going inside to check the antenna.

“One thing you can do, which both the Soviets and the Americans did during the space race, is track each other’s spacecraft. In order for a transmitter to pretend to be on a moon, it would have to actually be there,” said Tapping. “Because the Soviets had their big dishes pointed at the moon, picking up the signals of the spacecraft and the astronauts’ radios.

“Anyone can listen, so if the Americans had spoofed it, do you think the Soviets would have stayed quiet?”

To report a typo, email: editor@pentictonwesternnews.com.

Jordyn Thomson | Reporter
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