The Moon hasn’t been much of a target since the manned landing’s in the 60’s, but the last few years has seen that change with Japan’s successful Moon orbiter. Yesterday the Moon’s traffic just increased as China successfully entered the Moon’s orbit with their Chang’e-3 probe. If the mission continues to be successful, China will be joining the former Russia and the United States as one of only three countries to land on the Moon’s surface.
China launched their probe from the Xichang Satellite Center this past Monday, atop a Long March (LM) launcher. LM launchers are a Chinese designed and built line of rockets.
The Chang’e-3 entered the orbit after a 112 hour journey from Earth as it kicked-in 361 seconds of the variable-thrust engines to put it into its 100 km-high lunar orbit. The firing of the engines put the probe into a braking mode to avoid over-shooting the Moon or crashing into the Moon’s surface. The Chang’e-3 is in orbit for preparation to drop China’s rover into a soft landing onto the Moon’s surface.
The rover named “Yutu” gets its moniker from Chinese mythology as the goddess of the Moon’s pet, and also carries the nickname of “Jade Rabbit.” Yutu is hoping to descend onto the surface of the Moon sometime in mid-December. Once there, the rover will explore the Moon’s surface in a search for lunar natural resources.
Other countries ceased their exploration of the surface back in 1976. The Chang’e-3 and Yutu are a precursor to some of China’s future out-of-this-world plans. China has already vocalized their plans to build and occupy a space station by the year 2020. If successful, China will land another human astronaut on the Moon’s surface in the future.
China has begun their early preparation to have Yutu land in the Bay of Rainbows later this month. The planned landing area is a darker lava plain that is located in the upper-left quadrant of the Moon’s nearest side.
The shock-absorbing four-legged lunar lander will fire its propulsion system to lower its orbit in preparation for a soft touch-down and deployment of the six-wheeled rover. Yutu is classified as an autonomous robot but does allow control from an earth-based operator if needed.
Like a traffic-control beacon, the probe contains a terrain recognition sensor that will feed real-time data to the guidance computer. The computer-controlled rockets will increase or decrease thrust in an attempt to guide the lander to prevent it from coming to rest on rocks or steep slopes. Yutu will be deployed from the lander a few hours after touch-down.
The rover, Yutu, has a mass of around 308 pounds including the radioisotope heater that will prevent the rover from freezing during the lunar nights which last two weeks. Space researcher, Dwayne Day, said that the heater is likely to be powered by a small quantity of plutonium-238, as this is the isotope of preference for most space-use.
The ‘Jade Rabbit’ will then begin surveying the Moon’s surface using its on-board advanced radar. The rover will examine the composition of the lunar crust as it rolls along. This will be achieved by spectrometers that will detect any elements that are present in the soil and rocks that the rover encounters.
Yutu’s eyes are four cameras that will be returning high-resolution pictures and panoramic views from the Moon and also aiding in the robot’s navigation. An optical telescope is also on-board the robot that will allow astronomical events to be observed from the Moon’s surface.
As the on-going quest for rare-earth-minerals continues here on Earth, it is more than likely we’ll see more traffic aimed toward the surface of the Moon in the future. Moon quests may no longer be the effort of individual countries, as we are just on the brink of seeing more corporate groups experiment with the feasibility of space-mining as well.
By Brent Matsalla
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