From the closeness of the Moon to far beyond the orbit of Pluto, space probes have been making both headlines and history, with China successfully making humanity’s first soft landing of a space probe (and rover!) on the far side of the Moon, and the New Horizons probe beaming new images back to Earth from its encounter with Ultima Thule at the edge of the Solar System.
The China National Space Administration made history on January 3 with the touchdown of the Chang’e 4 lunar lander on the far side of the Moon, the first-ever soft landing of a space probe on the Moon’s so-called "dark side". Named for the Chinese goddess of the Moon, Chang’e 4 deployed its rover, Yutu 2 ("Jade Rabbit 2"), on the same day, beaming pictures of the Von Kármán crater back to Earth via the Queqiao ("Magpie Bridge") communication relay satellite that is parked in a halo orbit above the Moon’s far side.
Yutu 2 is currently powered down for a "noon nap", to avoid damaging its systems while the hot lunar midday sun is overhead, and will be brought out of this standby mode on January 10 — remember, noon on the Moon lasts longer than it does on Earth, since a Lunar day lasts for approximately 30 Earth days. Yutu 2 will then take new images of the Chang’e 4 lander, then "the rover will go to its planned area and start a series of scientific exploration projects in the Von Kármán Crater as planned by scientists," according to deputy chief commander and mission designer Zhang Yuhua.
Meanwhile, at the far reaches of the Solar System, data streaming back from the New Horizons probe is giving researchers a more detailed picture of the trans-Neptunian object known as Ultima Thule, the farthest object in the Solar System ever to be visited by a spacecraft. The images show that the object, officially known as "(486958) 2014 MU69", is a two-lobed body that appears to have been formed when two objects that once orbited one-another, simply nicknamed "Ultima" and "Thule", eventually closed their orbits enough to come in soft contact with each other, forming a shape that resembles a snowman.
With a temperature of a mere 35 Kelvin (-238°C, or -397°F), and situated in the Kuiper Belt 6.5 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) from the Sun, Ultima Thule appears to have remained relatively unchanged since the Solar System’s formation over 4.5 billion years ago. This is valuable to researchers as the cosmic snowman — cold enough for water ice to act more like rocks do on Earth — may allow new insights into the Solar System’s formation. "This is going to revolutionize our view of where we came from and how this whole process works," exclaims Marc Buie of Southwest Research Institute.
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