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NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Watching Yutu’s Lunar Lander From Orbit

Image

China’s moon rover Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) rolls down a ramp on the Chang’e 3 lander after touching down on the moon’s Bay of Rainbows on Dec. 14, 2013.
Credit: CNTV

A sharp-eyed NASA spacecraft is keeping tabs on China’s recently arrived lunar lander, all in the name of science.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, has added China’s Chang’e 3 lander and associated rover — which touched down on the moon on Saturday (Dec. 14) — to its list of observation targets.

“Repeated imaging of the landing site by LROC [the LRO Camera] will allow for detailed measurements of changes to the surface caused by the landing and movement of the Chang’e 3 rover,” NASA officials wrote in a statement on Friday (Dec. 13).

 

“LROC can image the surface to identify changes caused by Chang’e 3’s descent engine, similar to what has been observed from previous lunar landers,” they added. “The resulting atmospheric and surface changes will provide LRO with a new scientific opportunity to observe the transport of gases on the moon and the effects of local disturbances on the lunar regolith.”

Three other NASA moon probes also were slated to observe the Dec. 14 landing for scientific purposes. The agency’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), for example, kept an eye out for changes to the wispy lunar atmosphere caused by Chang’e 3’s touchdown, officials said.

And the two spacecraft making up NASA’s ARTEMIS mission (short for Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of Moon’s Interaction with the Sun) did their part as well.

“The first ARTEMIS spacecraft (P1) will pass within 124 miles (200 km) of the lunar surface on December 14,” NASA officials wrote in the Dec. 13 statement. “According to current plans, the spacecraft will look for any plume signatures in the plasma or magnetic field associated with Chang’e 3’s landing. The second spacecraft (P2) will observe pristine solar wind plasma and magnetic field conditions. This information is needed to determine how dust is lofted from the lunar surface.”

The Chang’e 3 success marked China’s first-ever landing on the moon, and the first soft touchdown on the lunar surface since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. NASA’s last soft lunar landing came in 1972, on the Apollo 17 mission.

The Chang’e 3 mission carries a lander and a rover called Yutu, whose name means “Jade Rabbit.” (Yutu is a pet of the goddess Chang’e and travels with her to the moon in Chinese legends.) Both robots will conduct science observations on the lunar surface.

The $504 million LRO spacecraft launched in June 2009. It’s about the size of a Mini Cooper car and carries seven different science instruments, which it uses to observe the moon from an altitude of 31 miles (50 km).

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.

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