NASA's lunar satellite has photographed China's lander on the far side of the moon - here's the first image

far dark side moon china change 4 lunar mission landing site karman crater nasa asu shayanne gal insider 4x3China's Chang'e-4 lunar mission landed inside an ancient crater located on the far side of the moon.Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

  • China landed the first robotic mission on the far side of the moon, called Chang'e 4, on January 3.
  • NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a moon-circling satellite, photographed the Chinese landing site on January 30.
  • NASA published the first LRO satellite image of the landing site on Wednesday.
  • The image shows the Chang'e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover on the floor of an expansive crater.

A month after China pulled off its Chang'e 4 mission, which landed robots on the moon's far side for the first time in history, NASA has released an image further proving the attempt was a success.

NASA photographed the Chinese landing site on January 30 with a moon-circling spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Researchers published the new picture (below) on the agency's LRO mission blog on Wednesday.

Chang'e 4, China's fourth robotic lunar mission, is named after a mythical lunar goddess. It launched on December 8, and the rover and lander touched down on the moon on January 3.

The car-size lander is expected to last about 12 months on the moon's far side - the lunar face we can't see from Earth ("dark side" is a misnomer). Chang'e 4 also deployed a desk-size rover called Yutu 2 or "Jade Rabbit" that should last about three months in the brutal conditions. (Temperatures on the moon's far side swing between searing-hot and bone-chilling cold every couple of weeks.)

The goals of the two Chinese spacecraft are to take photos of the barren lunar landscape, study lunar geology, look for water ice, scan the night sky for radio bursts, and even grow silkworms.

Read more: 'This is more than just a landing': Why China's mission on the far side of the moon should be a wake-up call for the world

The mission landed inside a 116-mile-wide impact site called the Von Kármán Crater. It's part of the South Pole-Aitken Basin: a 1,550-mile-wide scar made by a collision about 3.9 billion years ago. The crash may have splattered deep geologic layers of the moon onto its surface, which makes it an especially interesting area for study.

NASA scientists found the lander and rover in the LRO photo below, which was taken at a glancing angle on January 30. The yellow arrow points to the landing site.

china change 4 moon mission landing site satellite image lunar reconnaissance orbiter lro nasa gsfc asu labeledAn image from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that shows the location of China's Chang'e 4 lander on the far side of the moon in Von Kármán crater.NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

A close-up version more clearly reveals the Chang'e 4 spacecraft as a tiny white dot between arrows.

china change 4 moon mission landing site satellite image lunar reconnaissance orbiter lro nasa gsfc asu zoomA close-up of the Chang'e 4 landing site on the far side of the moon, as seen by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

"[A]s LRO approached the crater from the east, it rolled 70 degrees to the west to snap this spectacular view looking across the floor towards the west wall. Because LRO was 330 kilometers (205 miles) to the east of the landing site, the Chang'e 4 lander is only about two pixels across ... and the small rover is not detectable," Mark Robinson, a lunar researcher at NASA, said in a blog post about the image.

He added: "The massive mountain range in the background is the west wall of Von Kármán crater, rising more than 3000 meters (9850 feet) above the floor."

Sleuthing Chinese moon-landing sites from space

Initially, China did not say where Chang'e 4 had landed. So shortly after Chinese state media shared landing images on social media, Noah Petro, another lunar scientist at NASA, compared them to LRO images to figure out precisely where the mission had touched down.

far dark side moon china change 4 lunar mission landing site location illustration south pole aitken basin von karman crater shayanne gal insiderChina landed its Chang'e 4 lunar mission inside an ancient crater located on the far side of the moon.Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

This isn't the first time NASA has used its LRO spacecraft to study a Chinese moon landing.

On December 30, 2013, NASA scientists also helped locate China's Chang'e 3 mission on the lunar surface. Those images were a before-and-after comparison that clearly showed a lander and rover as small, separate dots.

The image of Chang'e 4 taken last week came from LRO's first flyover opportunity of the landing site. In future orbits, LRO should be able to image Chang'e 4 directly from above.

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