China Becomes First Country To Land On Far Side Of Moon, State Media Announce

That’s one giant leap for China.

China state television announced Thursday that China’s Chang’e 4 lunar explorer, which launched in early December, “became the first ever probe to soft-land on the far side of the moon.” The probe touched down at 10:26 Beijing time, the China Global Television Network said.

The landing “lifted the mysterious veil” from the far side and “opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration,” the broadcaster said, according to Reuters. (A soft landing is where a lander touches down as gently as possible; it is preferable to a hard landing.)

The six-wheeled rover landed in the southern section of the Von Kármán crater, near the moon’s south pole, Chinese media reported. China’s Xinhua News published a photo it says was taken by the probe “on the never-visible side of the moon.” While photos of the normally hidden far side of the moon have been previously taken from space, this would be the first image ever captured from the surface.

China’s lunar lander is loaded with a variety of cameras and sensors, including ground-penetrating radar to peer beneath the lunar surface, reported NPR’s Joe Palca while the probe was en route. “Although Chang’e 4’s mission is largely scientific, it is also a key bit of preparation for sending Chinese astronauts to the lunar surface,” wrote Palca. Only 12 humans have ever set foot on the moon, and all of them were Americans.

First Country To Land

The far side of the moon is “actually much more primitive” than the near side, with “really ancient crust that dates back to the very, very early solar system,” said Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University, previously told NPR.

“There are rocks all over the far side that are over 4 billion years old,” she said. “We’re really excited to see what those look like up close.”

The far side is sometimes erroneously referred to as the “dark side” of the moon, even though it does get sunlight. Traveling to the far side of the moon presents certain technical challenges — namely, it makes communication harder. Whereas Earth-bound scientists can communicate with the near side using direct radio communication, China first had to send a communications relay satellite to orbit above the far side of the moon, according to NASA. That satellite, the Queqiao, launched in May and entered orbit around the moon three weeks later.

“Queqiao means ‘Bridge of Magpies,’ referring to a Chinese folktale about magpies forming a bridge with their wings to allow Zhi Nu, the seventh daughter of the Goddess of Heaven, to reach her husband,” NASA wrote.

Trump EPA Says Mercury Limits On Coal Plants Too Costly, Not ‘Necessary’

In another proposed reversal of an Obama-era standard, the Environmental Protection Agency Friday said limiting mercury and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants is not cost-effective and should not be considered “appropriate and necessary.”

The EPA says it is keeping the 2012 restrictions in place for now, in large part because utilities have already spent billions to comply with them. But environmental groups worry the move is a step toward repealing the limits and could make it harder to impose other regulations in the future.

In a statement, the EPA said it is “providing regulatory certainty by transparently and accurately taking account of both costs and benefits.”

The National Mining Association welcomed the move, calling the mercury limits “punitive” and “massively unbalanced.”

When coal is burned it releases mercury into the air, where it can cause health risks to people including neurological disorders, heart and lung problems and compromised immune systems. Babies developing in the womb and young children are especially at risk. The main source of exposure is through eating contaminated fish and seafood.

“What has changed now is the administration’s attitude towards public health,” said Clean Air Task Force Legal Director Ann Weeks in a statement. Weeks called the EPA’s estimates outdated and said more recent research finds billions of dollars in public health benefits from reducing mercury emissions alone.

Others are concerned about the future impact.

“We should not limit ourselves in the ongoing fight against this dangerous pollutant,” said mercury expert Celia Chen of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. In a statement, she said the warming climate, for example, might affect mercury’s impact on the environment but the EPA’s proposal could make it harder to address that. “Regulators need the tools to strengthen mercury controls in the future if needed,” she said.

Jeff Holmstead doesn’t think that’s necessarily so. He’s a former EPA air administrator now with Bracewell LLP, which represents energy industry clients. In a statement, he said the EPA is not restricting courts from considering the co-benefits of a certain regulation but merely saying it should not justify a regulation like “this case, where virtually all the benefits are co-benefits.”

Coal Plants

Since many regulators have included the equipment costs in utility rates, some worry that no longer requiring the limits could leave customers paying for the pollution controls without getting cleaner air. That’s because it also costs money to continue operating that equipment.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect that if the standards go away there will be some number of utilities that will choose to no longer operate pollution controls that they’ve installed,” says Janet McCabe, former acting assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA during the Obama administration.

In 1990 Congress amended the Clean Air Act and advised the EPA to limit mercury emissions from a variety of industries. It took 21 years before the EPA finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for coal-fired power plants.

The proposal to weaken the mercury limits is the latest in a series of efforts the Trump administration has taken to help the struggling coal business. The federal Energy Information Administration says U.S. coal consumption in 2018 is expected to be at its lowest level in nearly four decades.

In December the administration proposed a revision that would allow coal-fired generators to emit more CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. The EPA has also moved to relax Obama-era regulations on carbon emissions and roll back existing regulations that govern coal ash.