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The Jade Rabbit Lands on the Moon

lunar probe Chang'e-3 on the screen of the  Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, capital of China. China's lunar probe  Chang'e-3 has started soft-landing on the moon as it began decelerating from 15 km above the lunar surface. (Xinhua/Li Xin)

lunar probe Chang’e-3 on the screen of the
Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, capital of China. China’s lunar probe
Chang’e-3 has started soft-landing on the moon as it began decelerating from 15 km
above the lunar surface. (Xinhua/Li Xin)

China’s first lunar rover landed on the surface of the moon on Saturday, less than two weeks after it lifted off from the Earth, Chinese state news reported.

The landing makes China one of only nations after the United States of America and the former Soviet Union to “soft-land” on the moon’s surface, and the first to do so in more than three dacades.

Chang’e 3, an unmanned spacecraft, will release Jade Rabbit (called Yutu in Chinese) a six- wheeled lunar rover equipped with at least four cameras and two mechanical legs that can dig up soil samples to a depth of 30 meters.

The solar-powered rover will patrol the moon’s surface, studying the structure of the lunar crust as well as soil and rocks, for at least three months. The robot’s name was decided by a public online poll and comes from a Chinese myth about the pet white rabbit of a goddess, Chang’e, who is said to live on the moon.

Weighing about 140 kilograms, the slow-moving rover carries an optical telescope for astronomical observations and a powerful ultraviolet camera that will monitor how solar activity affects the various layers of troposphere, stratosphere and ionosphere that make up the Earth’s atmosphere, China’s information technology ministry said in a statement.

The Jade Rabbit is also equipped with radioisotope heater units, allowing it to function during the cold lunar nights when temperatures plunge as low as -180*c (-292*F).

China’s space program

China has rapidly built up its space program since it first sent an astronaut into space in 2003. In 2012, the country conducted 18 space launches, according to the Pentagon.

The Chang’e-3 mission constitutes the second phase of China’s moon exploration program, which includes orbiting, landing and returning back to Earth.

In 2010, China captured images of the landing site for the 2013 probe, the Bay of Rainbows, which is considered to be one of the most picturesque parts of the moon.

Within the next decades, China expected to open a permanent space station in the Earth’s orbit.

But scientists in the United States have expressed concern that the Chang’e-3 mission could skew the results of NASA study of the moon’s dust environment.

The spacecraft’s decent is likely to create a noticeable plume on the moon’s surface that could interfere with research already being carried out by NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environmen Explorer (LADEE), Jeff Plescia, chair of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group told news site Space.com in November.

The Chang’e-3 spacecraft blasted off from a Long March 3B rocket in China’s Sichuan province on December 2 and reached the moon’s orbit at 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from its surface less than five days later.

On Tuesday, it descended into an elliptical orbit with its lowest point just 15 kilometers off lunar surface, a spokesperson for China’s Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense told Xinhua.

The Soviot Union’s Luna 24 probe was the last space mission to land on the moon in August 1976 four years after the United States launched the manned Apollo 17 mission.

China’s 1st Moon Rover Mission to Attempt Lunar Landing: Here’s What It Could Do

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The lunar orbit of China’s Chang’e 3 moon lander carrying the Yutu rover is shown in this graphic released by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. Chang’e 3 will land on the moon on Dec. 14, 2013.
Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation

China’s first moon rover mission is poised for a weekend landing on the lunar surface, an event that — if successful — will mark the country’s first robotic landing on another celestial body.

China’s Chang’e 3 lunar lander is currently orbiting the moon with its solar panels and landing legs deployed. If all goes well, the lander — which is carrying China’s first robotic rover — for a planned soft-landing on Saturday, Dec. 14, Beijing Time at Sinus Iridum, also known the Bay of Rainbows.

Once on the moon, the lander will unleash the instrument-laden Yutu rover, a six-wheeled robot built to trundle across the dusty, time-weathered terrain for months. Yutu — which means “Jade Rabbit” — is named after the rabbit that travels with the goddess Chang’e to the moon in Chinese legends.

The solar-powered Yutu rover comes equipped with cameras, a robotic arm tipped with science sensors and a radar system attached to its underbelly. The stationary lander itself is instrumented to observe Earth, astronomically eye other celestial objects from the moon, as well as watch the Yutu rover scamper about.

VIDEO: China Moon Probe Off and Flying

More than meets the eye

The surface of the moon has not been visited for decades.

Apollo 17 moonwalkers packed up their belongings and rocketed off that barren landscape in 1972. Last to explore the moon was the former Soviet Union’s robotic Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976.

If successful, the Chang’e 3 mission will mark the first time a Chinese spacecraft has touched down on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.

“I think a successful landing and rover operations will be of enormous significance for lunar exploration,” said Ian Crawford of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck College, University of London.

“Just being the first controlled soft-landing on the lunar surface for 37 years would be significant enough, but a successful deployment of only the third robotic rover, and the first equipped with modern instruments, will be remarkable,” Crawford told SPACE.com.

And apparently there is more to this mission than meets the eye — given what’s known about the Chang’e 3’s payload for prospecting.

Image

The Chang’e 3 lunar lander and moon rover is part of the second phase of China’s three-step robotic lunar exploration program.
Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering

China’s moon science

Crawford said Yutu’s ground-penetrating radar, or GPR for short, is one of the most “significant instruments” on the rover. For one, that hardware may reveal the scale of bedding of individual basaltic flows in Sinus Iridum. That data may help identify ancient regoliths, or “paleoregoliths,” he said.

“I have long been interested in the very rich scientific records, which may be trapped in palaeoregoliths sandwiched between lava flows,” Crawford said, and Sinus Iridum would be an excellent location to test the concept.

There are indications, Crawford said, such layers were detected by the orbital radar carried by Japan’s Kaguya moon probe. It was launched in 2007, orbited the moon for a year and eight months, and was purposely impacted on the lunar surface in June 2009.

If palaeoregolith layers exist within the uppermost 330 feet (100 meters) or so of the moon’s topside, then the Chang’e 3 mission should detect them, Crawford said. While China’s radar-toting spacecraft won’t have any means to access such buried layers, “I think the validation of GPR as a means for detecting them, and confirmation of their existence, would be a major contribution to future exploration plans,” he said.

Mining potential

Chinese space officials have been clear about surveying the moon and then tapping it for its resources.

“China has made no secret of their interest in lunar Helium-3 fusion resources,” said Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a former Apollo 17 moonwalker and professional geologist. He is author of the book, “Return to the Moon — Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space.”

Rare on Earth, Helium-3, rooted in the moon’s upper surface by billions of years of solar wind blasting, could be mined to energize fusion reactors. That initiative has long been advocated by Schmitt.

Yutu’s belly-mounted radar could give the depth of minable regolith and also identify boulders in that regolith large enough to cause mining problems, Schmitt told SPACE.com. “In fact, I would assume that this mission is both a geopolitical statement and a test of some hardware and software related to mining and processing of the lunar regolith.”

Schmitt said that NASA’s now on-duty Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has radar aboard that has obtained some very useful data. For example, it identified a buried, second fault that crosses the valley of Taurus-Littrow, the site that Eugene Cernan and Schmitt inspected on the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.

Furthermore, Apollo 17‘s Command Module pilot, Ronald Evans, operated a radar “sounder” from the Command Service Module in lunar orbit. “I understand that people are still actively trying to process that data,” Schmitt said.

Low-hanging fruit

“Chang’e 3 will invariably break new ground by investigating a new site on the moon, partly with new instrumentation, about which we know very little, by the way. So scientifically, it will advance knowledge,” said Paul Spudis, a planetary geology and remote sensing expert at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

“But its real significance is the development of a lunar surface capable flight system,” Spudis said. His question: Why build a lander that can carry nearly 3,750 pounds (1,700 kilograms) to deliver a rover that Chinese media reports as weighing 310 pounds (140 kilograms)?

“Clearly, they have other payloads in the queue, waiting to be sent there. Just what, we shall have to wait and see,” Spudis said.

While Apollo 17’s Schmitt is a supporter for moon-derived Helium-3, Spudis said “the real, low-hanging fruit” on the moon is the water and permanent sunlight at the poles, useful materials and continuous energy.

“Both enable long-term presence on the moon. I’m not sure that the Chinese see it quite that way yet, but they will eventually,” Spudis said.

Image

This image shows the view inside China’s mission control center in Beijing for the Chang’e 3 moon lander and rover mission in December 2013.
Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation

Geophysical exploration

Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist and chairman of the Mars Institute at the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., had done noteworthy work with ground-penetrating radar.

GPR can indeed be considered an In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) instrument, Lee said, in that GPRs are commonly used on Earth in geophysical exploration. They are used, he told SPACE.com, as the initial phase of subsurface reconnaissance that precedes any actual exploitation — or utilization — of resources.

“GPR is a profiling instrument, so it is expected to be operating while the rover is roving, as opposed to when it’s stopped at any particular location,” Lee said.

Lunar radar returns

GPR usually has a dipole antenna setup, so one antenna transmits a radar signal into the ground, while the other antenna receives the echoed signal, Lee said. Radar returns are triggered by discontinuities in the physical properties underground, for instance when more or less electrically conducting materials are encountered by the incoming radar signal, he said.

“The time of return of various echoed signals tells you how deep things are. The shape and polarization of the returning signal tells you what types of materials are encountered,” Lee said. “If different sounding frequencies are available on the GPR, which seems to be the case on the Chinese rover, the higher frequencies are used for probing to shallow depths while the lower frequencies, longer wavelength, are used to probe to greater depths,” he said.

Usually, GPR does not do well in the presence of liquid water in the ground, Lee said. “In the case of the moon, we are in GPR heaven, and the subsurface is expected to be bone dry when it comes to any liquid water.”

Excavation plans

Lee said that the GPR on Yutu is expected to be a subsurface structural profiler. If that’s the case, at higher frequencies, it will provide profiles of subsurface material transitions down to a depth of about 100 feet (30 meters).

“It should, therefore, be able to tell us where the lunar regolith transitions to more compact underlying materials. At lower frequencies, it will generate profiles of the deeper subsurface structure of the moon, down to hundreds of meters, provided the rover can rove over distances of order hundreds of meters or more,” Lee said.

From an ISRU perspective, it’s mostly the high-frequency soundings, down to a depth of 30 meters or so that will be most informative, as they will tell you how deep the lunar rubble layer is, “an important piece of information if one has future excavation plans,” Lee said. The deep sounding of the lunar subsurface, he said, down to hundreds of meters is more of value in an academic and possible geologic context, he said.

First order data

The Chang’e rover’s GPR is thought to have a penetration depth of 100 feet to nearly 330 feet (30 meters to 100 meters). It apparently can operate in two wavelengths, giving it very high resolution at shallow depths to penetrate through the regolith and into the mare basalts. The other GPR wavelength can penetrate through the regolith and into the mare basalts.

Once operating on the moon, the GPR should provide some first order data, said Jeff Plescia, a space scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

Plescia also chairs NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), chartered to assist the space agency in planning the scientific exploration of the moon.

The subsurface distribution of boulders on the moon is unknown, Plescia told SPACE.com. The late astrogeologist, Gene Shoemaker, argued years ago that the subsurface distribution should resemble the surface distribution, Plescia said.

“But there is no data. The trenches that were dug during the [Apollo] missions did not go very deep and there were only one or two instances where they thought they hit a rock either in drilling or with a cone penetrometer…which might suggest rocks are rare,” Plescia said.

ImageRadar equipment onboard NASA’s LRO does get some penetration, as does Earth-based Goldstone and Arecibo radar dishes, Plescia said. “But given the spatial resolution it would be more statistical than actually mapping boulders as Chang’e 3 could do,” he said.

EDITOR’S NOTE

THIS ARTICLE IS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SPACE.COM

Ancient Mars Lake Could Have Supported Life, Curiosity Rover Shows

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Mastcam mosaic of the Yellowknife Bay formation. This is a view from the base of an exposed section up through Sheepbed, Gillespie Lake, and basal Glenelg members. Locations of drill holes and Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (A PXS) measurements are shown. Image released Dec. 9, 2013.
Credit: Science/AAAS

NASA’s Curiosity rover has found evidence of an ancient Martian lake that could have supported life as we know it for long stretches — perhaps millions of years.

This long and skinny freshwater lake likely existed about 3.7 billion years ago, researchers said, suggesting that habitable environments were present on Mars more recently than previously thought.

“Quite honestly, it just looks very Earth-like,” said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.

“You’ve got an alluvial fan, which is being fed by streams that originate in mountains, that accumulates a body of water,” Grotzinger told SPACE.com. “That probably was not unlike what happened during the last glacial maximum in the Western U.S.”

http://www.space.com/20250-curiosity-finds-ancient-mars-habitable-opportunity-not-so-much-video.html

Habitable Mars

The lake once covered a small portion of the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater, which the 1-ton Curiosity rover has been exploring since touching down on the Red Planet in August 2012.

The main task of Curiosity’s $2.5 billion mission is to determine whether Gale Crater could ever have supported microbial life. The rover team achieved that goal months ago, announcing in March that a spot near Curiosity’s landing site called Yellowknife Bay was indeed habitable billions of years ago.

The new results, which are reported today (Dec. 9) in six separate papers in the journal Science, confirm and extend Curiosity’s landmark discovery, painting a more complete picture of the Yellowknife Bay area long ago.

This picture emerged from Curiosity’s analysis of fine-grained sedimentary rocks called mudstones, which generally form in calm, still water. The rover obtained powdered samples of these rocks by drilling into Yellowknife Bay outcrops.

The mudstones contain clay minerals that formed in the sediments of an ancient freshwater lake, researchers said. Curiosity also spotted some of the key chemical ingredients for life in the samples, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon.

The lake could have potentially supported a class of microbes called chemolithoautotrophs, which obtain energy by breaking down rocks and minerals. Here on Earth, chemolithoautotrophs are commonly found in habitats beyond the reach of sunlight, such as caves and hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.

“It is exciting to think that billions of years ago, ancient microbial life may have existed in the lake’s calm waters, converting a rich array of elements into energy,” Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College London, co-author of one of the new papers, said in a statement.

An icy Martian lake?

The shallow ancient lake may have been about 30 miles long by 3 miles wide (50 by 5 kilometers), Grotzinger said. Based on the thickness of the sedimentary deposits, the research team estimates that the lake existed for at least tens of thousands of years — and perhaps much longer, albeit on a possibly on-and-off basis.

Taking into account the broader geological context, “you could wind up with an assemblage of rocks that represent streams, lakes and ancient groundwater systems — so for times when the lake might have been dry, the groundwater’s still there. This could have gone on for millions or tens of millions of years,” Grotzinger said.

The lack of weathering on Gale Crater’s rim suggests that the area was cold when the lake existed, he added, raising the possibility that a layer of ice covered the lake on a permanent or occasional basis. But such conditions wouldn’t be much of a deterrent to hardy microbes.

“These are entirely viable habitable environments for chemolithoautotrophs,” Grotzinger said.

Researchers still don’t know if the Gale Crater lake hosted organisms of any kind; Curiosity was not designed to hunt for signs of life on Mars. But if chemolithoautotrophs did indeed dominate the lake, it would put an alien twist on a superficially familiar environment.

Image“You can imagine that, if life evolved on Mars and never got beyond the point of chemolithoautotrophy, then in the absence of competition from other types of microbes, these systems might have been dominated by that type of metabolic pathway,” Grotzinger said. “And that’s an un-Earth-like situation.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:

THIS ARTICLE IS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SPACE.COM

China’s 1st Moon Rover Arrives in Lunar Orbit

Less than five days after leaving Earth atop a blazing Long March launcher, China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft reached lunar orbit Friday to prepare for an historic rocket-assisted touchdown in the moon’s Bay of Rainbows later this month.

Outfitted with a six-wheeled robotic rover and smarts to avoid hazards in the landing zone, Chang’e 3 is China’s boldest unmanned space mission to date, extending feats achieved by a pair of lunar orbiters launched in 2007 and 2010.

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China’s Chang’e 3 moon mission, the country’s first flight to land a rover on the moon, is depicted in this graphic released by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The mission launched on Dec. 2, 2013 Beijing Time and arrived in lunar orbit less than five days later.
Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation

The four-legged lander fired its propulsion system for six minutes and braked into orbit around the moon at 0953 GMT (4:53 a.m. EST) Friday, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

The craft lifted off Dec. 1 on a Long March 3B rocket, which put the probe on a direct four-and-a-half day trajectory from Earth to the moon.

The spacecraft is now flying 100 kilometers, or about 60 miles, above the moon, Xinhua reported.

After lowering its altitude later this week, Chang’e 3 will fire a variable-thrust main engine to make a soft landing in the Bay of Rainbows, a dark lava plain on the upper-left quadrant of the moon’s near side.

The lander has terrain recognition sensors to feed information into the probe’s guidance computer, ensuring the spacecraft does not come down on a steep slope or in a boulder field.

A few feet above the moon, the lander will autonomously cut off its engine and drop to the surface. Engineers fastened shock absorbers to the landing legs to cushion the impact.

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The Chang’e 3 lunar lander and moon rover is part of the second phase of China’s three-step robotic lunar exploration program.
Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering

China has not disclosed the time of the landing, but European Space Agency officials supporting the mission with communications and tracking antennas say the touchdown is scheduled for some time Dec. 14.

Named Yutu or “jade rabbit,” the mission’s rover will drive off the landing platform a few hours later, according to ESA officials.

The rover has a mass of 140 kilograms, or about 308 pounds, and carries radioisotope heater units to keep the spacecraft warm during the two week-long lunar nights. The heaters are likely powered by small quantities of plutonium-238, the isotope of plutonium preferred for space missions, according to respected space researcher Dwayne Day, who discussed the rover’s heaters in a story published in the Space Review.

The Yutu rover carries advanced radars to study the structure of the lunar crust at shallow depths along its path, and it is outfitted with spectrometers to detect the elements making up the moon’s soil and rocks, said Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesperson for the Chang’e 3 mission, in a report by Xinhua.

Four navigation and panoramic cameras are mounted on the rover to return high-resolution images from the moon.

The mission also has an optical telescope for astronomical observations from the lunar surface, according to Pei.

ImageChina’s lunar program is focused on robotic missions for now, with plans for an unmanned mission to return rock samples to Earth by 2020. China’s military-run human space program is focused on development of a space station in Earth orbit around the same timeframe, but scientists have studied a manned lunar mission in the next decade.

Chang’e 3 will be China’s first mission to test the technologies required for future lunar surface exploration.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

THIS ARTICLE IS ORIGINALLY POSTED IN Spaceflight Now

Mars Hill-Climbing Opportunity at ‘Solander Point’

Mars Hill-Climbing Opportunity at 'Solander Point'

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover has begun climbing “Solander Point,” the northern tip of the tallest hill it has encountered in the mission’s nearly 10 Earth years on Mars.
Guided by mineral mapping from orbit, the rover is exploring outcrops on the northwestern slopes of Solander Point, making its way up the hill much as a field geologist would do. The outcrops are exposed from several feet (about 2 meters) to about 20 feet (6 meters) above the surrounding plains, on slopes as steep as 15 to 20 degrees. The rover may later drive south and ascend farther up the hill, which peaks at about 130 feet (40 meters) above the plains. Read more of this post

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