Cool Photos: While China’s Jade Rabbit Sleeps, NASA Watches Overhead

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter view of the Chang'e 3 lander (large arrow) and Jade-Rabbit rover (small arrow) just before sunset on their first day of lunar exploration. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
View from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Chang’e 3 lander (large arrow) and Jade Rabbit rover (small arrow) just before sunset on their first day of lunar exploration. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has snapped an image of both the Chinese lander and the hibernating Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover sitting among the craters on the surface of the moon. (Related: “Cool Video: Watch HD Footage of China’s Historic Moon Rover Landing.”)

Although the six-wheeled robotic geologist is only a scant 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide, it clearly appears as a pixel-wide spot in the high-resolution imagery taken by the U.S. spacecraft circling some 93 miles (150 kilometers) above.

NASA's Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter has been circling the moon since 2009. Its mission is to create dtailed maps of the moon and its resources. Credit: NASA
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the moon since 2009. Its mission is to create detailed maps of the moon and its resources. Credit: NASA

The LRO flew directly over the landing site on Christmas Day, according to NASA, and identification of the rover was easy thanks to both Chinese spacecraft having highly reflective metallic surfaces and solar panels, and casting very long, stark shadows on the craggy lunar regolith.

How can we be sure it’s not just some boulders? NASA was able to capture a “before” image of the landing site on June 30, 2013, with nearly identical lighting. By comparing the before and after images, scientists were able to determine the exact position of the lander on the lunar surface.

This animated GIF shows the Chinese Chang'e lander (large white dot in the center of the second image) and Yutu rover (smaller white dot below the lander). The individual images were taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Narrow Angle Camera.  Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
This animated GIF shows the Chang’e-3 lander (large white dot in the center of the second image) and Yutu rover (smaller white dot below the lander). The individual images were taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter narrow-angle camera. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The Chang’e-3 mission is China’s first ever lunar landing and marks the first successful soft landing on the moon in nearly three decades. The Soviet Union was the last to do it in 1976 with the Luna 4 probe.

Within hours of landing on December 14, the Jade Rabbit rolled down the ramp, began a visual stakeout of its new home, and performed a complete system check. The mission has already returned its first scientific data about the surrounding lunar rock chemistry via the rover’s onboard chemical sniffer, the Alpha X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument. (See also: “China’s Moon Rover Starts to Make Tracks.”)

Solar-powered chinese Jade-Rabbit rover seen here making tracks away from lander just before it goes into hibernation for the two-week long lunar night. Credit: CSNA
The solar-powered Jade Rabbit rover is seen here making tracks away from the lander just before it goes into hibernation for the two-week-long lunar night. Credit: CSNA

Initially planned to land within the lava basin Mare Iridium (Sea of Rainbows), the probe actually touched down on top of volcanic deposits within the neighboring Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) plain.

Since December 26 the rover has gone into hibernation for the duration of the two-week-long lunar night. When it wakes up next week, Yutu is expected to explore the mineralogy and geology of the surrounding dusty terrain.

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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.