Today, exactly 41 years after the last human footprint was made on the Moon by Gene Cernan, China became the third nation to touch the lunar surface, joining an exclusive club and earning a round of applause from around the world. The last lunar landing was performed by the Soviet Union on the Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976, and the United States remains the only country to have ever landed humans on the lunar surface (last human mission to the Moon was NASA’s Apollo 17 in December 1972).
The mission, named Chang’e 3 after the Chinese goddess of the Moon in ancient myth, is China’s third unmanned lunar mission, but it’s also the first landing—the next step in China’s ambitious Lunar Exploration Program. Chang’e 1 launched in 2007, and Chang’e 2 launched in 2010. Both missions orbited the Moon and carried out various studies, while also mapping the surface in its entirety, and both missions paved the way for Change’3 to land on the surface.
The mission began two weeks ago today with a picture-perfect liftoff from the country’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. Chang’e 3 soared skyward into the black of night atop a powerful Long March-3B rocket, and minutes later the Chang’e 3 lunar lander and its six-wheeled rover, named Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” separated from the rocket’s third stage while coasting into a beautiful sunrise 300 kilometers over the Pacific Ocean. From there it was a five-day trip to reach lunar orbit, and a week later for Chang’e 3 to begin its descent.
The descent itself lasted no more than 12 minutes. A variable thrust engine helped Chang’e 3 perform six stages of deceleration as it descended from 15 kilometers above the surface, and 28 thrusters controlled the spacecraft’s attitude through the descent. Flying on auto-pilot Chang’e 3 continued to control its careful descent into an area of the Moon’s northern hemisphere called Sinus Iridum, or the “Bay of Rainbows,” before touching down gently on the desolate lava-filled impact crater.
With the landing itself a complete success, the spacecraft began deployment of its solar arrays, powering up for its three-month mission. Yutu was deployed shortly after, rolling onto the lunar surface and solidifying China’s place in space history as a Moon lander. The 260-pound rover itself is equipped with specially designed metallic wheels so the dusty lunar surface does not negatively affect the vehicle. Yutu will rely on onboard sensors and three cameras to navigate its own way around obstacles, mapping its own path around rocks and other dangers that could cripple the vehicle, therefore eliminating the need to climb steep slopes to reach areas of interest (the rover can, however, climb slopes that angle as much as 30 degrees).
In ancient Chinese mythology Yutu was the white pet rabbit of Chang’e, who lived on the Moon with the lunar goddess. The name for the rover was selected following an online poll that collected over 3 million votes from people around the world.
On Friday, Dec. 13, NASA issued the following statement on China’s mission:
“After sending 12 humans to the moon’s surface during the Apollo Program, NASA remains committed to lunar science. Building on modern missions such as Clementine and Lunar Prospector and recent missions like LCROSS and GRAIL, NASA science has helped to map the moon, determine the presence of water ice, and understand our satellite’s irregular gravity field. NASA’s current missions to the moon are helping the agency understand our solar system better, informing future exploration efforts to other planetary bodies, and bringing us closer to the technologies we’ll need to explore future destinations like an asteroid and Mars.
Scientists using four NASA spacecraft currently studying our lunar neighbor may get an opportunity to gather new data from the Dec. 14 landing of the Chang’e 3 lunar rover. U.S. and international researchers view the pending arrival as a new scientific opportunity that could potentially enhance studies and observations of the lunar atmosphere.
Although there is no cooperation between the U.S. and China on these missions, U.S. researchers could see potentially interesting science from the landing. The data will be made available to the international science community.”
Yutu is tasked with the goal of surveying the geology of the Moon, both on and below the surface, as well as seeking out natural resources which could (potentially) be exploited to our benefit in the future. It has been known for some time that the Moon is rich in minerals and metals such as uranium and titanium, which Earth does not have much of for us to use. Helium-3 is also available in abundance on the Moon and could potentially be used as fuel for nuclear fusion, which (in theory) could eliminate our demand for energy for thousands of years.
“First, we want to develop our technology because lunar exploration requires many types of technology, including communications, computers, all kinds of IT skills and the use of different kinds of materials. This is the key reason,” said Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program in a recent statement to BBC News. “In terms of the science, besides Earth we also need to know our brothers and sisters like the Moon, its origin and evolution, and then from that we can know about our Earth.”
“In terms of the talents, China needs its own intellectual team who can explore the whole lunar and solar system – that is also our main purpose,” adds Ziyuan. “After all of this work, which is that China can make the achievement of arriving at the Moon and safely landing and that we can bring samples back; and once we finish all these unmanned projects, we will send man there. The Moon is full of resources, and these resources can be used without limitation. We hope we can fully utilize the Moon to support sustainable development for humans and society.”
China intends on launching another unmanned rover to carry out a similar mission in 2015 before launching a lunar sample-return mission in 2017. Should both of those missions (Chang’e 4 and Chang’e 5) be successful, then China will be ready to send humans back to the Moon in the mid- to late-2020s.
“Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country’s comprehensive national power,” said Ziyuan in a statement to China’s official newspaper People’s Daily. “It is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people’s cohesion.”