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China Can't Send Satellite to the Moon's 'Dark Side'; There Is No 'Dark Side'

No, there isn't really a permanent "dark side" of the moon, as can be visualized in this photo of last year's solar eclipse.
No, there isn't really a permanent "dark side" of the moon, as can be visualized in this photo of last year's solar eclipse.
Ray Stern
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Stories are popping up on newsfeeds all over the world today touting the launch of a Chinese communications satellite to the "dark side of the moon."

One little problem: There is no such place.

China is sending its probe to the far side of the moon, not the "dark side." No side of the moon is permanently dark.

CNN, Forbes, the Guardian, Business Insider, and lots of other news outlets screwed this one up. Some of the outlets have begun to correct it, no doubt after calls from snarky readers. For instance, Google News shows a Forbes story headline that reads, "China Takes Its First Step Towards The Dark Side Of The Moon." But the story's headline on the Forbes' site now says, properly, "far side."

Pink Floyd steered you wrong. So did your high school science teacher, possibly.

Patrick Young, an associate professor with Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, said it's difficult to explain the persistence of the idea of the moon's "dark side" in the public consciousness.

The root of the idea, clearly, is simply that the moon always shows one side of itself to earthlings. Tidal forces locked it into place eons ago, and the same thing has to happened to several moons of other planets in the solar system. But just because we can only see one side doesn't mean the moon isn't spinning. When the moon is between Earth and the sun, its far side is lit up like the Talking Stick Resort and Casino at night.

Schoolteachers are often limited to two-dimensional, textbook descriptions of the moon, and if the teacher isn't careful, explaining a 3D concept in 2D can lead to misconceptions among students, Young said.

And once that bad seed is placed in someone's brain, it can be hard to get it out.

"Education research shows that it's a lot harder to overcome a misconception than to teach something to someone for the first time," Young said.

Chinese students these days may be less confused about astronomical issues. The country plans to become a space superpower by 2030. Today's launch of an unmanned probe to the moon is one step in that goal. The probe, which China calls Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, will orbit the moon and provide communications to a planned lunar lander, if everything goes well. The lander would be the first ever to land on the moon's far side.

Which brings up another point: The moon arguably doesn't have sides, since it's a sphere, unless you count the inside and the outside.

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