Chang’e 3 Lunar Rover Ready For Daring Moon Landing Saturday

Chang’e 3 lowers its orbit from a 62-mile circle to elliptical with the low point of 9.3 miles over the Bay of Rainbows. Credit: CNSA

China’s Chang’e 3 lander will begin its descent to moon’s surface at 7:10 a.m. (CST) tomorrow Dec. 14. In an era when it takes months and years to arrive at places like Mars and Jupiter, it’s almost shocking that the Chinese mission, launched less than two weeks ago, will soon touch lunar soil.

Of course, the moon’s so much closer than any planet, it’s a no-brainer to get there in a hurry, but it’s been so long since we’ve visited the place, it makes me wonder why we haven’t considered putting rovers up there sooner and as routinely as we send them whizzing off to Mars.

Chang’e 3’s thrusters fire after it separated from its booster while in Earth orbit. Credit: CCTV

Few would deny Mars is a bigger, juicier target than old Luna. Naturally, it comes down to money. With only so much, you have to pick and choose your missions. That’s why I get a kick whenever a new country joins the space exploration race. I don’t care if it’s national pride, testing of technology or whatever. Just shoot the probe up there and get some science done. Oh, and don’t forget to send us a postcard. Preferably every day.

I shouldn’t complain too much about the lack of recent moon missions. NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) safely arrived in lunar orbit in October and the next month starting sniffing out lunar argon, potassium and sodium and recording moon dust even at high altitudes. But there’s nothing like a rover to make you feel like you’re right there clomping around on the ground.

Change’3 lander descends to the moon in this artist’s conception. Credit: CNS-TV

We humans have an insatiable appetite for new worlds. Ever since our ancestors left Africa some 100,000 years ago, we’ve wondered what’s around the next bend. Next November the European Rosetta probe will deploy a tiny robot to land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko; in July 2015 New Horizons will fly by Pluto and its handful of moons. Bring it on!

Yutu – Jade Rabbit – rolls down a metal ramp from the lander to the lunar surface. Credit: CCTV

On Dec. 10, mission control at the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) fired thrusters on Chang’e 3 to change its 62-mile-high circular orbit to an elliptical one with a low point 9.3 miles (15 km) high over the landing target in the Bay of Rainbows. Rocket engines will fire again a final time Saturday at 7:10 a.m. 10 minutes later, the craft will make a soft landing on the moon.

To prevent it from smashing into rocks on the way down, the lander’s equipped with terrain recognition equipment to help it automatically avoid obstacles like the boulders Neil Armstrong had to steer the Apollo 11 craft around before he and Buzz Aldrin made their historic touchdown on July 20, 1969.

Assuming a trouble-free landing, the rover, nicknamed “Yutu” or Jade Rabbit, will roll down from the lander on a ramp and onto the surface. Both probes will run on solar energy during the 2 week long lunar day; during the equally long night, when temperatures can drop to -280 F (-173 C), radioisotope heater units will keep them warm enough to operate even in the deep chill.

Nice interview with Ouyang Ziyuan, the “father” of the Chang’e missions

Three panoramic cameras facing different directions and one descent camera outfit the lander, while the rover boasts two panoramic cameras, two navigation cameras and two hazard avoidance cameras (much like the Mars Curiosity Rover). Naturally, the moon itself will be the No. 1 science target, but scientists will also take pictures of celestial objects in the lunar sky and study everything from distant galaxies to Earth’s plasmasphere with a 6-inch (150mm) telescope sensitive to ultraviolet light.

I’ll have an update and maybe even early photos come tomorrow. We wish the Chinese the best. I can’t wait!

3 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I think it is high time for the USA to get humans back on the MOON LIKE WE DID OVER 40 YEARS AGO, WITH BETTER TECHNOLOGY.

  2. Pat Byars

    Personally I was disappointed Apollo ended prematurely, even more so that we have not returned in so long – there is lots of science & development knowledge as well as potential resources to be discovered.
    And I truly agree – why have we not sent rovers already? Even more so, why do we build custom one of’s for each program? It doesn’t cost that much more to at least build a dozen (or a hundred) as most of the cost is Non Recurring Engineering Costs (NRE)!! ?!
    Still the moon is down a big gravity hole/well and without key raw materials -or so we thought; discovering water / ices at the poles changes EVERYTHING. Yet I truly support instead the exploration of NEO asteroids (esp those with key elements – metals & ices) it’s sad we spent most of our efforts in low Near Earth Orbit (planetary robotic sciences excluded!) but I guess it’s baby steps.
    Now it’s clear though that we need to return to the moon, visit the asteroids – esp Ceres! and fully bootstrap private enterprise into space (cheers to NASA’s COTS program). It’s not only the HIGH MILITARY GROUND, it’s potential the HIGH ECONOMIC GROUND as well. China’s rover shows one additional lesson – it’s a bad idea to underfund NASA….

    1. astrobob

      Good points. I do think we’ve spent more $$ in low Earth orbit than needed, but while the US has lagged manned missions, we’ve done splendid things with our robotic emissaries. Think of Cassini, Galileo, Deep Impact, MESSENGER, LRO, MRO, Curiousity, New Horizons and on and on.

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