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.
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.
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!
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!