China’s ‘Jade Rabbit’ breaks 37-year lunar mission dry spell

For the first time in 37 years, humanity has an active mission on the lunar surface, and it's thanks to China's space agency, which landed their Chang-e 3 spacecraft on the moon Saturday morning.

After the spacecraft performed a precision soft-landing in the northwestern part of the Mare Imbrium, a wide 'sea' in the moon's northern hemisphere, Chang-e 3's passenger — a solar-powered robot rover dubbed 'Yutu' or 'Jade Rabbit' — disembarked, rolling down metal ramps to put wheels into the lunar dust on the southeast edge of Sinus Iridum, the 'Bay of Rainbows'. This duo is breaking 37-year and 40-year 'dry-spells', since the last lander to touch down on the moon was Russia's Luna 24 sample-return mission in 1976, and the last rover to roam the lunar surface was Russia's Lunokhod 2 in 1973.

[ Photos: China's Chang'e-3 lunar probe landing ]

The 140-kilogram Jade Rabbit rover will now spend the next three months or so surveying the landing area for natural resources. It will use ground-penetrating radar that can read down to a depth of 30 metres, and it carries an infrared spectrometer and an x-ray spectrometer similar to the one used by the Mars Curiosity rover, which it will use to analyze rock and soil samples.

Far from being just the instrument to deliver Jade Rabbit to the moon, the Chang-e 3 lander has its own one-year mission planned. It will use cameras to survey its surroundings and soil probes to perform tests of the lunar surface material, but it will also be looking outward as well. It has the first lunar-based telescope to observe galaxies, stars, and more exotic objects like novae, quasars and blazars, and it will use an ultraviolet camera to study how the Earth's plasmasphere reacts to the activity of the sun.

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With samples gathered and the science done, the prevailing attitude for lunar exploration since the days of the Apollo missions and the Luna landers has been something along the lines of 'been there, done that'. There just hasn't been a compelling reason to send machine or man to the moon's surface. Orbiters have been studying it from afar, of course. The twin GRAIL satellites produced hyper accurate gravity maps of the moon before impacting on its surface roughly a year ago. NASA's LADEE mission is currently in lunar orbit, studying the moon's extremely thin atmosphere and dust that gets kicked up into it by various processes. These missions have performed exceptional science and they have been incredible successes, so there's no downplaying of their roll in lunar exploration.

However, there seems to be something more satisfying, and possibly more interesting, about actually having a mission on the ground. Perhaps it comes from humanity's need to explore and experience things directly, that just observing from afar isn't quite good enough. After all, when it comes to Mars exploration, we do hear about discoveries from satellites orbiting the planet, but the most compelling stories are those about Curiosity and Opportunity roaming around on the surface.

It should be interesting to follow Jade Rabbit's exploits for the next three months and potentially beyond.

(Image courtesy: NASA/LRO)

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