Claims of China becoming the first country to land on the moon's South Pole a few years ago has been viral on social media. Those claiming, have cited an article published on History.com, titled, "China Makes Historic Landing on 'Dark Side' of the Moon" as the basis of their claim. Several readers sent BOOM the article requesting us to check its veracity.
On August 23, 2023, the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) Chandrayaan - 3 successfully landed on the moon's south polar region. While most news reports stated that India was the first country to land on the south pole of the moon, some social media users claimed that China had already landed on the south pole in 2019. BOOM spoke to N Neelakantan, a retired ISRO Director, Satellite Communication and Navigation Programme to understand the geographical differences of India's and China's lunar landings.
Where exactly on the "far side" of the moon did China land in 2019?
According to the article on History.com, "Just before 10:30 am Beijing local time on January 3, the robotic spacecraft Chang’e 4 made a soft landing in the South Pole-Aitken Basin area of the moon, otherwise known as the “far side” or “dark side” of Earth’s only natural satellite." The moon is tidally locked to earth, rotating at the same rate that it orbits earth. Hence the "far side" is the hemisphere of the moon that is not visible from earth.
According to the China National Space Administration, "China's Chang'e-4 probe touched down on the far side of the moon Thursday, becoming the first spacecraft soft-landing on the moon's uncharted side that is never visible from Earth.The probe, comprised of a lander and a rover, touched down at the preselected landing area at 177.6 degrees east longitude and 45.5 degrees south latitude on the far side of the moon at 10:26 a.m. (Beijing Time), the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced." It further stated, "Then the probe landed in the Von Karman Crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin."
The Chinese spacecraft, landed in the South Pole- Aitken Basin specifically within a crater called Von Karman. However, it is not the South Pole of the moon. " It is like telling Australia is in Antartica," Neelakantan from ISRO told BOOM.
South Pole of the moon and South Pole-Aitken Basin are not the same
According to Neelakantan, the main difference in both spacecraft landings is that China's Chang'e 4 landed in the southern hemisphere of the moon whereas India's Chandrayaan 3 landed in the south pole region. The South Pole-Aitken Basin is a large impact crater on the moon, and the south pole refers to the southernmost point on the lunar surface. This means that India is indeed the first country to land on the south polar region of the moon.
"The primary landing coordinates for the Chandrayaan-3 lander are situated at a latitude of 69.367621°South and a longitude of 32.348126°East. This chosen site is positioned within the lunar south polar region," said Neelakantan. According to NASA and the China National Space Administration, the landing coordinates of Chang'e 4 was 45.5 S latitude, 177.6 E longitude.
"Any latitude lower than 66.6 down South can be termed as south polar region. Ours is truly in the south polar region," Neelakantan confirmed.
In conclusion, the Chandrayaan 3 Vikram Lander is on the earth facing side of the moon and its coordinates are far south of the Chinese Lander, Chang'e 4, he added.
"The south polar region is more challenging because of the availability of sunshine for power generation and thermal management. But it's is expected to be more interesting in terms of water availability, mineral wealth, etc," Neelakantan concluded.