News From Space: China’s Jade Rabbit Moon Rover

change'e3Earlier this week, China took another step towards becoming a major power in space with the launch of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe. On board this vehicle is the Yu Tu (Jade Rabbit) lunar rover, a vehicle that is designed to deploy from the vehicle once it reaches lunar orbit and explore the surface independently. If all continues to go to plan, the Chang’e-3 will reach the Moon by December 14th, and its arrival will certainly be historic.

For starters, the probe’s landing in Sinus Iridum, a basaltic lava plane in the Moon’s northern hemisphere, will be the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon in 37 years. In addition, it will the be the first time China has landed a spacecraft and a rover on the Moon. This is the latest in the Chang’e program, a series of robotic and human missions that ultimately seeks to put Chinese cosmonauts on the Moon.

change'e3_2The Chang’e-3 mission incorporates two major components – the Lander and the Jade Rabbit rover, which is named after the companion of the Moon goddess Chang’e in Chinese mythology. The three-stage Chang Zheng 3B (Long March 3B) launch vehicle that is being used to send the Chang’e-3 probe to the Moon is roughly a functional equivalent of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the heaviest rocket in their fleet.

After launching on Monday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, the rocket was placed into an Earth-Moon transfer orbit and conducted its first separation. Shortly thereafter, its second stage engines were engaged to effect course corrections and bring the lander and rover into lunar orbit. Then came two crucial burns from the third stage engines, which put the Chang’e-3 probe into a parking and then highly elliptical translunar orbit.

change'e3_3Throughout all this, the probe slept, and will continue to do so until it burns its own engines to enter lunar orbit tomorrow.Then will come the tricky bit, landing safely without any input from controllers on Earth. This requires a combination of inertial guidance, extremely precise range and velocity measurements, image recognition, and a pretty fast computer – not to mention a certain amount of luck.

Once landed, the six-wheeled rover will begin exploring the surface and collecting soil samples for analysis. As with other rovers, energy will be provided by a series of solar panels and information obtained during its mission will be sent back to Earth for further analysis. In addition, real-time video and pictures will be captured by the rover’s arsenal of cameras, all of which will be sent back to Earth and shared via Chinese media outlets.

change'e3_1In addition to being a first for China’s space program, the Jade Rabbit also has the added distinction of being outfitted with what is arguably the most sophisticated scientific equipment of any previous rover. Most notable is a powerful ground-penetrating radar capable of penetrating up to 30 meters (100 ft) of lunar soil or about 100 m (330 ft) of lunar crustal material, and analyzing the underlying structure.

The rover is also equipped with an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) that uses particle-induced X-ray emission and X-ray fluorescence to determine the abundance of elements within rock and soil samples. The instrument can also find hidden materials, such as water of crystallization, which is otherwise difficult to detect remotely. Finding water on the Moon is an ongoing objective for space agencies, and crucial to plans for future settlement.

change'e3_4Then there is the Lunar Ultraviolet Telescope (LUT), which is designed to act as the first long-term astronomical observatory to ever be placed on the Moon’s surface. The vacuum environment and slow rotation of the lunar environment make an ideal location for near-UV observations that cannot be carried out from beneath the Earth’s obscuring atmosphere.

Another optical instrument is the Extreme Ultraviolet Camera intended to monitor the Earth’s plasmasphere, which is a magnetically active region within the magnetosphere but above the ionosphere. It works by viewing light with a wavelength of 30.5 nm which is scattered from helium ions in the plasmasphere. The lander is also hosting several other cameras and a lunar soil probe.

china-lunar-lander-rover-launch-jade-rabbit-13As already stated, the landing site for Chang’e-3 is in the general area of Sinus Iridum, a northwestern extension to the Mare Imbrium basaltic plane which is surrounded from the northeast to the southwest by the Montes Jura mountain range. A precise location has not yet been announced by Chinese authorities, but it has been widely speculated that it will take place within the vicinity of crater Laplace A – a crater that is about 9 km in diameter.

This is certainly an exciting time, as we are likely to learn plenty of new things about the Moon in the next few weeks! And in the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of the Change’e-3 entire mission- from launch to touchdown and deployment on the Moon, courtesy of RyukyuSARs:


Sources: gizmag.com, nasaspaceflight.com

Cassini, MESSENGER, and MOM: A Space Probe Odyssey

Cassini_Saturn_Orbit_InsertionIt had has been a big month in the field of space probes and satellites. Whether they are in orbit around Mercury, on their way to Mars, or floating in the outer Solar System, there’s been no shortage of news and inspirational footage to be had. And it is a testament to the age we live in, where space news is accessible and can instantly be shared with millions of people around the world.

First up, there’s the recent release of Cassini’s magnificent image of Saturn’s rings shining in all their glory. Back in July, Cassini got a good look back at Earth from about 1.5 billion kilometers (932 million miles) away. Known as
“The Day The Earth Smiled”, NASA has spent the past few months cobbling together this picture from numerous shots taken during Cassini’s circuitous orbit around Saturn.

cassini-jupiter-annotatedCassini has always been able to take impressive pictures in Earth’s general direction, but this picture was special since it used the enormous bulk of Saturn to block the usually confounding brightness of the Sun. Cassini, which was launched to survey the outer planets in 1997, captured an absolutely incredible image of both the Earth as a pale blue dot, and of Saturn as a striking, luminous apparition.

As part of NASA’s latest awareness campaign, which tried to get everyday citizens to smile at the sky for the first posed interplanetary photo most of us have ever experienced, the photo captured the halo effect that makes our sixth planet look truly breathtaking. In the annotated version (pictured above), you can also see Venus, Mars, and some of Saturn’s moons.


Next up, there’s the MESSENGER probe, which managed to capture these impressive new videos of Mercury’s surface. As part of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) ride-along imaging campaign, these videos were captured using the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). Even though the original high-res images were captured four seconds apart, these videos have been sped up to a rate of 15 images per second.


The views in each video are around 144-178 km (90-110 miles) across. The large crater visible in the beginning of the second video is the 191-km (118-mile) wide Schubert basin. In related news, there are new maps of Mercury available on the US Geological Survey website! Thanks to MESSENGER we now have the entirety of the first planet from the Sun imaged and mapped.

MESSENGER launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in August of 2004 and established orbit around Mercury on March 18th, 2011. It was the first man-made spacecraft ever to do so, and has provided the most comprehensive mapping of Mercury to date, not to mention evidence of ice, organic molecules, and detailed conditions on the surface.

India_Mars_Orbiter1And last, but not least, there was the recent launch of the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) new Mars Orbiter Mission (aka. MOM). The launch took place on Tuesday, November 5th from the Indian space port located on a small island in the Bay of Bengal. As the nation’s first attempt to reach the Red Planet, the aim of the $70 million mission goes beyond mere research.

In addition to gathering information that might indicate if life has ever existed or could exist on Mars, the mission is also meant to showcase India’s growing prowess in the field of space and to jump ahead of its regional rival (China) in the big interplanetary march. As Pallava Bagla, one of India’s best known science commentators, put it:

In the last century the space race meant the US against the Soviets. In the 21st century it means India against China. There is a lot of national pride involved in this.

India Mars probeIn addition, there has been quite a bit of speculation that the missionw as designed to stimulate national pride in the midst of an ongoing economic crisis. In recent years, a plunging currency, ailing economy and the state’s seeming inability to deliver basic services have led many Indians to question whether their nation is quite as close to becoming a global superpower as it seemed in the last decade.

MOM is expected to arrive in the vicinity of Mars on September 24th, 2014 where it will assume an elliptical orbit around the planet and begin conducting atmospheric surveys. If all continues to goes well, India will the elite club of only four nations that have launched probes which successfully investigated the Red Planet from orbit or the surface – following the Soviet Union, the United States and the European Space Agency (ESA).

India_Mars_Orbiter2MOM was also the first of two new Mars orbiter science probes that left Earth and began heading for Mars this November. The second was NASA’s $671 million MAVEN orbiter, which launched on November 18th atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida. MAVEN is slated to arrive just two days before MOM, and research efforts will be coordinated between the two agencies.

Much like MAVEN, MOM’s goal is to study the Martian atmosphere , unlock the mysteries of its current state and determine how, why and when the atmosphere and liquid water were lost – and how this transformed Mars climate into its cold, desiccated state it is in today. In addition to aiding our scientific understanding of the world, it may help us to transform the planet into a liveable environment once again.

For many people, these developments are an indication of things to come. If humanity ever intends to become an interplanetary species, an expanding knowledge of our Solar System is an absolute prerequisite. And in many respects, making other planets our home may be the only way we can survive as a species, given our current rate of population growth and consumption.

Sources: extremetech.com, nasa.gov, universetoday.com, planetarynames.wr.usgs.gov, theguardian.com, www.isro.org