The highly anticipated first images from NASA’s LADEE probe have arrived and their quality confirms what NASA scientists already suspected; the moon looks better in the images from the Chinese mission two months ago. In the words of Butler Hine, LADEE project manager; “Star tracker cameras are actually not very good at taking ordinary images.”
On the other hand, images from the Jade Rabbit, China’s first rover, show a much more photogenic lunar surface. Light grey rocks pop on the brownish ground, and the red-tinted volcanic plain of Sinus Iridum (the Bay of Rainbows) seems to glow. The moon that China roved looks far more exciting than the one NASA has been photographing for half a century. Beijing Aerospace Control released images of the Chang’e-3 mission in December, though the Jade Rabbit rover has yet to finish its job and the lander will continue to operate for the remainder of the year.
Chang’e-3 was the first unmanned rover mission to touch down on the moon’s surface in over 40 years, and it was only the third mission in history. The mission was designed to test new technologies and collect data, including an assessment of mineral resources that could potentially be mined from the moon.
The first Chinese moon mission not only looks impressive, but was declared a complete success, and combined with the current NASA mission, confirms the viability of robotic missions to collect data on the lunar surface. Another robotic mission is planned for 2017 to bring samples of lunar soil back to Earth, and Bejing has plans to establish a permanent space station by 2020.
LADEE, or the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, might not be taking high-def images for science-themed screen savers, but its images are none the less exciting. LADEE is out solving mysteries and trouble-shooting lunar real estate prospects; mapping its way through the skies and figuring out its orientation in orbit. Like a hipster with out-of-focus subjects in the foreground, if questioned about wide-angle shots of the stars that include blurry-moon-face in half of the frame LADEE would say, “I meant to do that.”
Although NASA has been studying the dusty grey lunar surface for 50 years (or is it the brilliant brown moon? No wait, that one is Chinese,) there is still plenty they do not yet know about its dust. Clingy and highly abrasive, scientists were concerned that a long-term living arrangement with lunar dust would be difficult. LADEE was sent out to conduct a Lunar Dust Experiment, and detect just how difficult electrostatic dust can be, while simultaneously analyzing the moon’s atmosphere with twin spectrometers.
If the moon happens to look better in Chinese photos than those from NASA’s LADEE rover, it only confirms the two missions were very different with different types of cameras. The Chang’e-3 mission was equipped with an ultraviolet camera and descent camera on the lander, as well as two panoramic cameras and engineering and navigation cameras on the Jade Rabbit rover.
By Mimi Mudd