China’s Chang’e 3 landed on the moon today, marking the first time a soft landing has been achieved there since Russia’s Luna 24 in 1976. The landing comes 14 days after the mission launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern China. Hours after the lander touched down, it released the Yutu rover, which will explore the lunar surface for a planned three months.
Chang’e 3 set down in Sinus Iridium, or the Bay of Rainbows, one of the large basalt plains that cover the Moon’s Earth-facing side. The landing came after a nerve-wracking 12 minute descent sequence, during which Chang’e 3 operated autonomously. During the descent phase, Chang’e 3 demonstrated a number of technologies critical for future moon landings, among them the ability to find its altitude and autonomously select a landing site from radar data.
Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief for the Chang’e program, told the Xinhua, “The successful landing shows China has the ability of in-situ exploration on an extraterrestrial body,”
Once on the surface, the lander performed a series of checkout tests before rolling the Yutu rover to the lunar surface. Video taken from Chang’e 3 shows Yutu rolling to the surface with a crater surrounded by blocky ejecta in the background. This may become one of Yutu’s first exploration targets once the surface mission begins in earnest.
Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, is a boxy rover 1.5m tall and 1m wide, weighing 120kg. The rover is designed to explore the Moon’s geology, analyze the lunar regolith, and explore for possible mineral deposits. Yutu carries 20kg of scientific equipment, including cameras for hazard navigation, two spectrometers to study surface geochemistry, and a ground-penetrating radar (the first of its kind on the Moon).
The Chang’e 3 lander won’t sit idle, either. The lander is equipped with a soil probe and an extreme ultraviolet telescope. During its planned one year lifetime, the lander will collect several samples of lunar soil for analysis. It will also study the interaction of the solar wind with the Earth’s ionosphere.
Chang’e 3 comes soon after India’s Mangalyaan mission set course for Mars, sparking interest in a possible space race between the two nations. However, China emphatically denies that it is competing with India. Said Sun, “Compared to the last century’s space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, mankind’s current return to the moon is more based on curiosity and exploration of the unknown universe. China’s lunar program is an important component of mankind’s activities to explore peaceful use of space.”
The successful mission is a milestone for the Chinese space program, which aims to land a human crew on the Moon by the mid-2020s.