Friday, 20 December 2013

China's Chang'e-3 Probe touches down on the Moon.

On 1 December 2013 the China National Space Administration launched a Long March-3B Rocket from its Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan Province, carrying its Chang'e-3 Lunar Probe on the first leg of its mission to the Moon. The probe entered the orbit of the Moon on 6 December, and touched down in Sinus Iridum on 14 December.

The launch of the Chang'e-3 Lunar Probe. Xinhua.

The probe made a soft landing on the surface of the Moon, using chemical rockets to slow its descent before landing on four shock absorber equipped legs, the first probe to land on the Moon in this way since the Soviet and US missions of the Cold War period, which ended in the 1970s, though the more sophisticated computer equipment available today meant the probe was able to analyze its landing site better than the Cold War probes, and if needs be adjust its landing trajectory more rapidly. The successful landing makes China the third country to achieve a soft landing on the Moon (an Indian probe made a hard landing -  i.e. crashed directly into - on the Moon in 2008).

Having landed on the Moon the Chang'e-3 Probe deployed a rover vehicle, the Yutu (Jade Rabbit), intended to explore the geology of a 3 km³ area around the landing site. As well as a set of cameras and mass spectrometers (used to determine rock chemistry) Yutu is equipped with a ground penetrating radar, which should enable it to determine the structure of the lunar surface to a depth of 30 m, the first time that an attempt to examine the lunar subsurface has been made.

The Yutu Rover on the surface of the Moon, as seen by a camera on the Chang'e 3 Probe. CCTV.

In addition to the instruments on the rover, the Chang'e 3 Probe itself has its own soil probe, as well as cameras with which to survey its instruments. In addition it has a pair of ultraviolet telescopes, one of which is designed to study the Earth's plasmasphere (inner magnetosphere), and the other to study more distant astronomical objects, such as galaxies, variable stars and quasars, making Chang'e the first lunar astronomical observatory, something scientists from several nations have long hoped to achieve (the Moon has almost no atmosphere, making its skies as clear as those achieved from space, but is a solid surface, preventing the need for a telescope to constantly adjust its position to remain pointing in the same direction).

While the probe has landed successfully on the Moon and begun returning information, its lauch as not entirely without mishap; several pieces of debris fell from spent rocket stages onto a village in Suining County in neighbouring Hunan Province, damaging a number of homes, but not causing any injuries.

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