China’s Moon Rover Starts To Make Tracks

China’s lunar lander snaps a color photo of Yutu- the six-wheeled rover exploring the moon. a day after it touched down. Credit: CNSA / CCTV
China’s lunar lander snaps a color photo of Yutu- the six-wheeled rover exploring the moon one day after it touched down. Credit: CNSA / CCTV

China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft performed a  nerve-wracking 12 minute descent and touched down safely on the lunar surface on Saturday, December 14 at 8:11 am EST. Several hours later, a 140-kilogram (300-pound) six-wheeled rover named Jade-Rabbit rolled down a ramp to begin its 3-month mission exploring the lunar rocks and soil.

China joins an elite club of nations–just the US and the old Soviet Union–that have managed to land intact spacecraft on the moon.

As China's first lunar lander made its harrowing descent on Saturday navigation camera snapped this image of the fast approaching cratered surface of the moon.  Credit: Xinhua/CCTV
As China’s first lunar lander made its harrowing descent on Saturday navigation camera snapped this image of the fast approaching cratered surface of the moon. Credit: Xinhua/CCTV

Outfitted with solar panels that the Chinese space agency says successfully opened soon after landing on the moon’s flat lava plains, the SUV-sized lander is now able to generate it’s own power and has begun to beam its first batch over nearly 60 images  back to Earth, with the first hi-def panoramic images of its new desolate home to follow in the next day or two.

Snapshot from live TV broadcast of Lunar Lander Chang'e-3 as seen by the cameras aboard China's first moon rover.  Credit: CNSA / CCTV
Snapshot from live TV broadcast of Lunar Lander Chang’e-3 as seen by the cameras aboard China’s first moon rover. Credit: CNSA / CCTV

The rover’s original landing site wass situated within the basin of the 250-mile-wide (400-kilometer-wide) Sinus Iridium, or Bay of Rainbows, a large flat crater visible in the upper-left area of the full moon as seen from Earth. But the Chinese space agency decided to land the rover one orbit early, a bit to the east over Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains. This unexplored region offers the potential for discovery of interesting geological features, clear driving for the rover, and grand views of steep crater walls.

Screen grab taken from live broadcast of China's Jade-Rabbit rover successfully rolling down the ramp and setting its six wheels on the lunar surface.Credit: CNSA / CCTV
Screen grab taken from live broadcast of China’s Jade-Rabbit rover successfully rolling down the ramp and setting its six wheels on the lunar surface.Credit: CNSA / CCTV

The advanced rover is equipped with four cameras and ground-penetrating radar. It sports a robotic arm outfitted with an alpha particle x-ray spectrometer that is capable of sniffing out the chemical makeup of rocks and soil.

This mission marks China’s first attempt to land on another celestial body. It not only looks to expand our understanding of the moon’s geologic history, but to impress the global community with China’s technological prowess.

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Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.