By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Space News
Ever since Pythagoras theorized that all celestial bodies are spherical about 2,500 years, mankind has been fascinated by Earth’s only moon, especially the unknown half that always faces away from us, popularly called the “dark side.”
Just before 10:30 a.m. Beijing time on January 3, 2019, China’s robotic spacecraft Chang’e 4 made a soft landing on the dark side of the moon in the South Pole-Aitken Basin area. A rover on the landing craft soon sent back the first photos of the moon’s other side.
China’s Spacecraft Immediately Hailed as Major Feat
As the first spacecraft in history to land on this unexplored half of the moon, the journey was immediately hailed as a major feat. Newsweek said, “China Makes History with Chang’e-4 Probe.”
Even the Russian news agency Sputnik reported the feat: “On 3 January, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e-4 made a historic soft landing on the moon and, a few hours later, sent the first pictures from the far side of Earth’s natural satellite.”
US Historic Feat ‘Lost in Space’ by China’s Moon Landing
However, a NASA probe’s even more impressive space flight seems to have gotten lost amid the world’s kudos for the Chinese feat.
NASA’s New Horizons space probe was launched on January 19, 2006. Thirteen years later, on January 2, 2019, the probe released the first detailed images of the most distant object in space ever explored – the Kuiper Belt object nicknamed Ultima Thule.
Scientists call the peanut-shaped object a “contact binary,” that is, two connected spheres 19 miles in length. The scientific team named the larger sphere “ultima” (12 miles across) and the smaller sphere “Thule” (nine miles across).
“This flyby is a historic achievement,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Never before has any spacecraft team tracked down such a small body as such high speed so far away in the abyss of space,” he added.
China: 240,000 Miles, US: 4.1 Billion Miles
Chang-e 4 flew about 240,000 miles to reach the moon in five days. New Horizons, in flight now for 13 years, has covered 4.1 billion miles. NASA scientists expect the probe will continue to transmit images – including its closest views of Ultima Thule – and data for many months to come. With each mile, New Horizons will set a new space flight record.
Comparing the two space feats is like comparing a golf chip shot onto the green that lands in the cup to a tee shot that flies over the entire golf course and keeps going.
Anyone interested in the New Horizons mission can follow it on Twitter and use the hashtags #UltimaThule, #UltimaFlyby and #askNewHorizons. Live updates and links to mission information are also available on http://pluto.jhuapl.edu and www.nasa.gov.