There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.
China’s march towards domination of Earth and space alike continues as the Middle Kingdom prepares to be the first to launch a spacecraft to the far side of the moon next month. You know – the Dark Side. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the uncharted territory on the far side of the moon, and the mission has the potential to open up whole new avenues of lunar study. A second mission planned for 2019, meanwhile, will be the first to return moon rocks to Earth in over forty years. The missions are named after Chang’e, the Chinese moon goddess, and show that the Chinese fully intend to become a leading superpower when it comes to space exploration.
The voyage to the dark side of the moon presents several new technical challenges. Because the moon is tidally locked, meaning the same side always faces us, astronomers here on Earth won’t be able to communicate directly with the Chang’e-4 rover on the dark side because the moon would block all transmissions. To overcome this, the Chinese space agency has launched a transmission relay satellite to the other side of the moon to bounce signals back and forth between the far side of the moon and Earth.
That satellite, named Queqiao, has defense analysts in the West worried. Any craft or satellite sitting in at the far equatorial side, or L2 point, would remain almost completely undetectable by current defense satellites if it should come flying back towards Earth. At a recent Air Force Association event, senior intelligence engineer Jeff Gosse of the Space and Missile Analysis Group at the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center says that such a satellite could pose a unique threat to American defense satellites in traditional geostationary orbits (GEO):
You could fly some sort of a weapon around the moon and it comes back — it could literally come at [objects] in GEO…and we would never know because there is nothing watching in that direction. Why do you need a relay satellite flying around L2? So you can communicate with something that’s going to land on the other side of the moon — or so you can fly around the other side of the moon? And what would that mean for our assets at GEO?
Defending communications and support satellites has become a chief concern of the armed forces, particularly as Russia and other actors seem to be waking up their space-based arsenals. When politicians talk of war in space, they don’t mean zero-gravity laser rifle battles; they mean satellite-to-satellite warfare.
Still, others aren’t so convinced that the Chang’e missions represent a new mineshaft gap for the Space Force, as there are perfectly peaceful reasons why a space agency would want a satellite on the dark side of the moon – particularly one sending a rover to said dark side. When the U.S. launched the Space Shuttle program, the Soviet Union feared that the shuttle was a new form of space weapon, and we all know how wrong those fears turned out to be, right?
We better turn some satellites around.