December 14, 2013 – Welcome to the late 1960s and 70s. China has achieved what both the United States and Soviet Union accomplished back then, a soft landing on the Moon. The Chang’e 3 mission to the Moon launched on December 1 successfully touched down on Sinus Iridum, the Bay of Rainbows, a relatively flat surfaced area.
China’s space agency provided a live feed of the descent and landing and on arrival issued an eye-level image from the landing site. We should see more footage and photographs in the next few days as China deploys Yu Tu or Jade Rabbit, its 120-kilogram (260 pound) rover to be deployed to explore the area. Jade Rabbit is designed to manage slopes of up to 30 degrees and can travel up to 200 meters (660 feet) per hour.
The lander combines solar power and a radioactive thermoelectric generator to supply power. The latter is important during the two-week lunar night. The rover is powered by solar panels with batteries for night. Jade Rabbit, like its cousins, Curiosity and Opportunity on Mars navigate using a camera with integrated local hazard analysis. It can operate autonomously but for the most part will be controlled from Earth.
The lander has an on board ultraviolet telescope, an extreme ultraviolet camera. Jade Rabbit has an on board alpha particle x-ray spectrometer to study the composition of the lunar surface and subsurface. Watch my Twitter feed in coming days for links to images and data collected by this first for China.
China’s next mission is planned for 2015 when it will send another robotic mission to the surface but this one will retrieve lunar rock samples to return to Earth in 2017. China will then have duplicated what both the Soviet Union and the United States accomplished in the 1970s, the Soviets using robots and the Americans, human crewed Apollo missions. China is expected to launch its first human-crewed mission to the Moon sometime in the 2020s. This will come after China duplicates another feat of current space faring nations, establishing its own space station in low-Earth orbit.