On Dec. 14, China became only the third nation ever to softly land a robot on the moon, a feat that hasn’t been achieved since the Soviet Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976. The mission, Chang’e 3, lowered its six-wheeled rover, “Yutu” (“Jade Rabbit”), to the lunar surface, where it’s currently taking a spin in the lunar regolith. Jade Rabbit expected to carry out science for at least 3 months.
December 14th at 3:35 p.m. EST (4:35 a.m. Sunday, Beijing time), the Chinese Chang’E 3 lander lowered its rover to the moon’s surface. A CCTV television broadcast depicted recorded footage of the rover, called “Yutu” (“Jade Rabbit”), rolling off the lander’s sleds, trundling into the lunar dust.
The lander/rover separation follows the first successful “soft” moon landing for 37 years, as the Chang’e 3 lander touched down in the “Bay of Rainbows” (Sinus Iridum), an ancient lava plain region in the moon’s northern hemisphere at 8:11 a.m EST (9:11 p.m. Beijing time). The last successful soft moon landing was accomplished by the Soviet Union with the Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976. The last manned mission, NASA’s Apollo 17, left the lunar surface on this day in 1972.
In contrast with NASA’s rover missions to Mars, today’s successful deployment of the Yutu rover could be overseen in near real-time. As pointed out by the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla, “Unlike on Mars, the moon rover can basically be joysticked from Earth since (communications) delay is so short.” Mars landers depend on pre-programmed commands and sophisticated automated systems from descent through to landing as the time delay between Earth and Mars can be dozens of minutes (depending on orbital distance between planets). The time between commands being sent from Earth to the moon is less than two seconds.
In CCTV footage of the rover deployment, many cameras showed Yutu roll out onto the deployment ramp, which slowly lowered the rover to the ground. The rover then rolled off the ramp without incident, making its first tread-marks in the lunar regolith.
The solar-powered Yutu rover is expected to explore the lunar landscape for three months, while the lander will carry out scientific operations for at least a year.
The Chang’e 3 lander mission is only the latest in a series of missions that highlight China’s interest in lunar exploration and exploitation. The Yutu rover was designed to build on the nation’s scientific understanding of the Earth’s only natural satellite, while identifying resources that could potentially be mined in the future. Future plans include a sample return mission in 2017 and a manned mission in the 2020′s.