The Dawn of Orion and the Path Beyond Earth: Spectacular Launch Gallery

Orion’s inaugural launch on Dec. 5, 2014 atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 7:05 a.m. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Zero-G News/AmericaSpace
Expanded with a growing gallery![/caption]

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – After four decades of waiting, the dawn of a new era in space exploration finally began with the dawn liftoff of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft on Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.

The picture perfect liftoff of Orion on its inaugural unmanned test flight relit the path to send humans beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the launch of Apollo 17 on NASA’s final moon landing mission on Dec. 7, 1972.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Orion soared to space atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket at 7:05 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Enjoy the spectacular launch photo gallery from my fellow space journalists and photographers captured from various up close locations ringing the Delta launch complex.

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Tens of thousands of spectators descended upon the Kennedy Space Center to be an eyewitness to history and the new space era – and they were universally thrilled.

Orion is the first human rated spacecraft to fly beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 and was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

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The EFT-1 mission was a complete success.

The Orion program began about a decade ago.

America’s astronauts flying aboard Orion will venture farther into deep space than ever before – beyond the Moon to Asteroids, Mars and other destinations in our Solar System starting around 2020 or 2021 on Orion’s first crewed flight atop NASA’s new monster rocket – the SLS – concurrently under development.

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Watch for Ken’s ongoing Orion coverage from onsite at the Kennedy Space Center about the historic launch on Dec. 5.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Orion and Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Apollo 17 launch on Dec. 7, 1972. Credit: Julian Leek
Apollo 17 launch on Dec. 7, 1972. Credit: Julian Leek

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NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orion at dawn moments before liftoff on Dec. 5, 2014.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Orion at dawn moments before liftoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Awaiting Yutu’s Phone Home on Lunar Day 3

Will Yutu Phone Home ?
This composite view shows China’s Yutu rover heading south and away forever from the Chang’e-3 landing site about a week after the Dec. 14, 2013 touchdown at Mare Imbrium. This cropped view was taken from the 360-degree timelapse panorama. See complete 360 degree landing site timelapse panorama below. Chang’e-3 landers extreme ultraviolet (EUV) camera is at right, antenna at left. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com
See our Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014:
http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.html[/caption]

Will ‘Yutu’ phone home? Will Yutu live to see another Earthrise?

Those are the million dollar questions we’re all awaiting the answer to on pins and needles as Lunar Day 3 begins for China’s world famous ‘Yutu’ moon rover and Chang’e-3 lander, following a significant malfunction as night fell two weeks ago.

With the Sun due to rise over the Mare Imbrium landing site, China’s maiden pair of lunar probes are due to awaken at any moment now – and hopefully send good news.

Yutu – which means ‘Jade Rabbit’- and the mothership lander have been sleeping through the utterly frigid two week long lunar night since they entered their second hibernation period on Jan. 24th and 25th respectively, according to Chinese space agency officials.

No communications are possible during the period of dormancy.

To get a clear view of Yutu’s traverse across the Moon’s magnificently desolate gray plains, be sure to check out our timelapse panoramic mosaic showing the rover’s movements at three different positions around the stationary lander – above and below.

360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander This 360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at three different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-22, 2013 during the 1st Lunar Day. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com
360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander
This 360-degree time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at three different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-22, 2013 during the 1st Lunar Day.
Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com
See our Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014:
http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.html

The 360 degree panorama by the imaging processing team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo was also newly featured on Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on Feb 3, 2014.

However, as I reported earlier here, Yutu suffered a rather serious mechanical anomaly just as the sun was setting and causing China’s moon mission team to urgently sprang into action.

“Scientists are organizing repairs,” wrote the People’s Daily, the official government newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party.

Apparently one of the solar panels did not fold back properly over Yutu’s instrument laden mast after it was lowered to the required horizontal position and into a warmed electronics box to shield and insulate it from the extremely frigid lunar night time temperatures.

The potentially deadly malfunction could spell doom for the unprotected mast mounted instruments and electronic systems, including the color and navigation cameras and the high gain antenna, if true.

Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover – from Above And Below  Composite view shows China’s Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover from Above And Below (orbit and surface) – lander color panorama (top) and orbital view from NASA’s LRO orbiter (bottom). Chang’e-3 lander color panorama shows Yutu rover after it drove down the ramp to the moon’s surface and began driving around the landers right side to the south. Yellow lines connect craters seen in the lander panorama and the LROC image from LRO (taken at a later date after the rover had moved), red lines indicate approximate field of view of the lander panorama. Credit: CNSA/NASA/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo/Mark Robinson
Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover – from Above And Below Composite view shows China’s Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover from Above And Below (orbit and surface) – lander color panorama (top) and orbital view from NASA’s LRO orbiter (bottom). Chang’e-3 lander color panorama shows Yutu rover after it drove down the ramp to the moon’s surface and began driving around the landers right side to the south. Yellow lines connect craters seen in the lander panorama and the LROC image from LRO (taken at a later date after the rover had moved), red lines indicate approximate field of view of the lander panorama. Credit: CNSA/NASA/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo/Mark Robinson

During each 14 Earth-day long night, the Moon’s temperatures plunge dramatically to below minus 180 Celsius, or minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit.

A radioisotopic heater unit keeps the Mast instruments warm, during lunar night, in the absence of solar power.

Dust accumulation on the rover and gears may possibly be to blame for the failure to retract, based on unofficial accounts.

China has not released any official or detailed information on the cause of the malfunction or recovery actions taken by Chinese space engineers.

So, no one knows the ‘Jade Rabbits’ fate at this time.

‘Jade Rabbit’ has been immensely popular with the Chinese public.

Over 36,000 well wishes were posted on an unofficial Sina Weibo account shortly after word of the mechanical anomaly was announced.

Lunar Day 3 at Mare Imbrium was due to start around this past weekend Feb. 8 or 9.

Traverse Path of Yutu rover from Dec. 14 landing to Dec. 21. Landscape textured with Chang'e 3 imagery from space and ground.  Credit: CNSA/BACC
Traverse Path of Yutu rover from Dec. 14 landing to Dec. 21, 2013. Landscape textured with Chang’e 3 imagery from space and ground. Credit: CNSA/BACC

An anonymous writer on Weibo, China’s twitter equivalent, reported; “We will hopefully get back news of the rabbit after sunrise today February 10 at 15:00 hrs (3 pm), Beijing local time, and confirm whether safe or unable to move.” That is according to a google translation I used.

Both vehicles depend on their life giving solar panels to produce power in order to function and accomplish their scientific tasks during each Lunar day which lasts approximately 14 days.

They had been functioning perfectly and collecting science measurement as planned during Lunar Day 2.

‘Jade Rabbit’ had departed the landing site forever, and was journeying southwards as the incident occurred – about six weeks into its planned 3 month long moon roving expedition.

In a historic feat for China, the Chang’e-3 spacecraft safely touched down on the Moon at Mare Imbrium near the Bay of Rainbows some two months ago on Dec. 14, 2013 .

Seven hours later, the piggybacked 140 kg Yutu robot drove off a pair of ramps, onto the Moon and into the history books.

The 1200 kg stationary lander is expected to return science data about the Moon and telescopic observations of the Earth and celestial objects for at least one year.

Chang’e-3 and Yutu landed on a thick deposit of volcanic material.

The hugely popular probes could be the forerunners to a manned Chinese Moon landing mission a decade from now.

China is only the 3rd country in the world to successfully soft land a spacecraft on Earth’s nearest neighbor after the United States and the Soviet Union.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Photo of Chang'e-3 moon lander emblazoned with Chinese national flag taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover on Dec. 22, 2013. Credit: CNSA
Photo of Chang’e-3 moon lander emblazoned with Chinese national flag taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover on Dec. 22, 2013. Credit: CNSA

China considers Manned Moon Landing following breakthrough Chang’e-3 mission success

Comparison of China’s Chang’e-3 unmanned lunar lander of 2013 vs. NASA’s Apollo manned lunar landing spacecraft of the 1960’s and 1970’s
Story updated[/caption]

Is China’s Chang’e-3 unmanned lunar lander the opening salvo in an ambitious plan by China to land people on the Moon a decade or so hence?

Will China land humans on the Moon before America returns?

It would seem so based on a new report in the People’s Daily- the official paper of the Communist Party of China – as well as the express science goals following on the heels of the enormous breakthrough for Chinese technology demonstrated by the history making Chang’e-3 Mission.

The People’s Daily reports that “Chinese aerospace researchers are working on setting up a lunar base,” based on a recent speech by Zhang Yuhua, deputy general director and deputy general designer of the Chang’e-3 probe system.

No humans have set foot on the moon’s surface since the last US lunar landing mission when Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt departed 41 years ago on Dec. 14, 1972.

For context, the landing gear span of Chang’e-3 is approximately 4.7 meters vs. 9.07 meters for NASA’s Apollo Lunar Module (LM).

Photo of Chang'e-3 moon lander emblazoned with Chinese national flag taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover on Dec. 22, 2013. Credit: CNSA
Photo of Chang’e-3 moon lander emblazoned with Chinese national flag taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover on Dec. 22, 2013. Credit: CNSA
When will the US flag return?

Right now China is actively at work on the critical technology required to conduct a manned landing on the Moon, perhaps by the mid-2020’s or later, and scoping out what it would accomplish.

“In addition to manned lunar landing technology, we are also working on the construction of a lunar base, which will be used for new energy development and living space expansion,” said Zhang at a speech at the Shanghai Science Communication Forum. Her speech dealt with what’s next in China’s lunar exploration program.

China’s Yutu lunar rover, deployed by the Chang’e-3 lander, is equipped with a suite of science instruments and a ground penetrating radar aimed at surveying the moon’s geological structure and composition to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by potential future Chinese astronauts.

Portrait photo of Yutu moon rover taken by camera on the Chang'e-3 moon lander on Dec. 15, 2013 shortly after rolling all 6 wheels onto lunar surface.  Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Portrait photo of Yutu moon rover taken by camera on the Chang’e-3 moon lander on Dec. 15, 2013 shortly after rolling all 6 wheels onto lunar surface. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

But the Chinese government hasn’t yet made a firm final decision on sending people to the Moon’s surface.

“The manned lunar landing has not yet secured approval from the national level authorities, but the research and development work is going on,” said Zhang.

Meanwhile the US has absolutely no active plans for a manned lunar landing any time soon.

President Obama cancelled NASA’s manned Constellation “Return to the Moon” program shortly after he assumed office.

And during the 2012 US Presidential campaign, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously declared “You’re fired” to anyone who would propose a US manned lunar base.

Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew capsule, Service Module and 6 ton Launch Abort System (LAS) mock up stack inside the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

All that remains of Constellation is the Orion crew module – which was expressly designed to send US astronauts to the Moon and other deep space destinations such as Asteroids and Mars.

NASA hopes to launch a manned Orion capsule atop the new SLS booster on a flight to circle the moon as part of its first crewed mission around 2021 – depending on the budget.

The first Orion capsule will launch on an unmanned Earth orbiting test flight dubbed EFT-1 in mid-September 2014.

However, given the near total lack of reaction from the US political establishment to China’s extremely impressive Chang’e-3 feat and the continuing slashes to NASA’s budget, the outlook for a change in official US Moon policy is certainly not promising.

China and its political leadership – in stark contrast – are clearly thinking long term and has some very practical goals for the proposed lunar base.

“After the future establishment of the lunar base, mankind will conduct energy reconnaissance on the moon, set up industrial and agricultural production bases, make use of the vacuum environment to produce medicines,” Zhang explained according to the People’s Daily.

“I believe that in 100 years, humans will actually be able to live on another planet,” said Zhang.

China also seems interested in international cooperation based on another recent story in the People Daily.

“We are willing to cooperate with all the countries in the world, including the United States and developing countries,” said Xu Dazhe, the new chief of China’s space industry and newly promoted to head the China National Space Administration.

Xu made his remarks at the International Space Exploration Forum held at the US State Department.

However, since 2011, NASA has been banned by official US law from cooperating with China on space projects.

China is wisely taking a step by step approach in its Lunar Exploration programs leading up to the potential manned lunar landing.

With China’s lunar landing architecture now proven by the outstanding success of Chang’e-3, a production line can and has already been set up that will include upgrades potentially leading to the manned mission.

The already approved Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission is due to liftoff in 2017 and retrieve up to 2 kilograms of pristine rocks and soil from the Moon.

After the completion of the Chang’e-5 mission, the lunar exploration program and the manned space program will be combined to realize a manned lunar landing, Zhang explained according to the People’s Daily.

Meanwhile China is forging ahead with their manned space program. And no one should doubt their resolve.

In 2013 they launched a three person crew to China’s Tiangong-1 space station, reaping valuable technological experience pertinent to manned spaceflight including lunar missions.

By contrast, the US has been forced to rely 100% on the Russian’s to launch American astronauts to the ISS since the forced shutdown of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.

China is only the 3rd country in the world to successfully soft land a spacecraft on Earth’s nearest neighbor after the United States and the Soviet Union.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

China’s Yutu Moon Rover and Chang’e-3 Lander – Gallery of New Images & 1st Earth Portrait

The Earth from the Moon – by Chang’e-3 on Christmas Day
Lander camera snapped this image on Christmas Day 2013. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences[/caption]

Nearly a month after the stunningly successful soft landing on the Moon by China’s first lunar mission on Dec. 14, 2013, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has at last released far higher quality digital imagery snapped by the Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu moon rover.

This release of improved images is long overdue.

And perhaps the best news of all involves a belated Christmas present to humanity – the publication of never before seen and absolutely stunning images of the Earth from the Moon captured by the lander on Christmas Day 2013.

We haven’t seen the Earth from the Moon’s surface in 4 decades – not since the 1970’s.

Photo taken by the extreme ultraviolet camera on Dec. 16, 2013 shows the observation of the Earth's plasmasphere by the Chang’e-3 lander. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Photo taken by the extreme ultraviolet camera on Dec. 16, 2013 shows the observation of the Earth’s plasmasphere by the Chang’e-3 lander. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Until now, most of the Chang’e-3 mission images we’ve seen have essentially been rather low resolution pictures of pictures – that is screenshots or photos taken of the imagery that has been flashed onto large projection screens at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, and then distributed by Chinese government media outlets.

So they have been degraded several times over.

Portrait photo of Yutu moon rover taken by camera on the Chang'e-3 moon lander on Dec. 15, 2013 shortly after rolling all 6 wheels onto lunar surface.  Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Portrait photo of Yutu moon rover taken by camera on the Chang’e-3 moon lander on Dec. 15, 2013 shortly after rolling all 6 wheels onto lunar surface. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

I’ve collected a gallery of the new Chang’e-3 lunar photos here for all to enjoy – see above and below.

The gallery includes photos taken during the final moments of the descent and landing on Dec. 14, 2013, as well as portraits and 360 degree moonscape panoramas taken by both spacecraft after Yutu rolled its wheels onto the loose lunar soil 7 hours later on Dec. 15, and the fabulous new images of Earth in visible and UV light.

Yutu moon rover imaged by camera on the Chang'e-3 moon lander on Dec. 16, 2013. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Yutu moon rover imaged by camera on the Chang’e-3 moon lander on Dec. 16, 2013. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Yutu and the lander are about to awaken from their self induced slumber which began at Christmas time to coincide with the dawn of the the utterly frigid two week long lunar night.

Temperatures plunged to below minus 180 degrees Celsius.

They went to sleep to conserve energy since there is no sunlight to generate power with the solar arrays.

Yutu portrait taken by the Chang’e-3 lander on Dec. 22, 2013.  China’s 1st Moon rover ‘Yutu’ embarks on thrilling adventure marking humanity’s first lunar surface visit in nearly four decades.  Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Yutu portrait taken by the Chang’e-3 lander on Dec. 22, 2013. China’s 1st Moon rover ‘Yutu’ embarks on thrilling adventure marking humanity’s first lunar surface visit in nearly four decades. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

After driving off the lander, Yutu – which means ‘Jade Rabbit’ – drove in a semicircle around the lander and headed south.

Jade Rabbit stopped at 5 designated places.

The pair of Chinese spacecraft then snapped images of one another at each location. Some of those images were included in this new batch.

So you can see the lander from 3 different perspectives collected here:

1st Photo of Chang'e-3 moon lander taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover after it drove all 6 wheels onto the lunar surface on Dec. 15, 2013. Credit: CNSA
1st Photo of Chang’e-3 moon lander taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover after it drove all 6 wheels onto the lunar surface on Dec. 15, 2013. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Side view Chang'e-3 moon lander in this image taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover as it drove in a semicircle around the lander heading south. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Side view Chang’e-3 moon lander in this image taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover as it drove in a semicircle around the lander heading south. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Photo of Chang'e-3 moon lander emblazoned with Chinese national flag taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover on Dec. 22, 2013. Credit: CNSA
Photo of Chang’e-3 moon lander emblazoned with Chinese national flag taken by the panoramic camera on the Yutu moon rover on Dec. 22, 2013 during 5th and final stop as it drove in a semicircle around the lander heading south. Yutu is looking north, lander looking south. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Here’s a pair of very cool 360 degree panoramas – taken by each spacecraft and showing the other.

This digitally-combined polar panorama shows a 360 degree color view of the moonscape around the Chang’e-3 lander after the Yutu moon rover drove onto the lunar surface leaving visible tracks behind.  Images were taken from Dec. 17 to Dec. 18, 2013.  Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
This digitally-combined polar panorama shows a 360 degree color view of the moonscape around the Chang’e-3 lander after the Yutu moon rover drove onto the lunar surface leaving visible tracks behind. Images were taken from Dec. 17 to Dec. 18, 2013. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
This digitally-combined polar panorama shows a 360 degree black and white view of the moonscape around the Yutu moon rover after it drove off the Chang’e-3 lander at top and left visible tracks behind.  Images were taken on Dec. 23, 2013.  Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
This digitally-combined polar panorama shows a 360 degree black and white view of the moonscape around the Yutu moon rover after it drove off the Chang’e-3 lander at top and left visible tracks behind. Images were taken on Dec. 23, 2013. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
1st panorama around Chang’e-3 landing site after China’s Yutu rover drove onto the Moon’s surface on Dec. 15, 2013. The images were taken by Chang’e-3 lander following Dec. 14 touchdown. Panoramic view was created from screen shots of a news video assembled into a mosaic. Credit: CNSA/CCTV/screenshot mosaics & processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
1st panorama around Chang’e-3 landing site after China’s Yutu rover drove onto the Moon’s surface on Dec. 15, 2013. The images were taken by Chang’e-3 lander following Dec. 14 touchdown. Panoramic view was created from screen shots of a news video assembled into a mosaic. Credit: CNSA/CCTV/screenshot mosaics & processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Finally here’s imagery taken during the landing sequence by the descent imager in the final minutes before touchdown at Mare Imbrium, nearby the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region.

It is located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. You can easily see the landing site with your own eyes.

And be sure to check my earlier story with an eye popping astronauts eye view video combining all the descent imagery – here.

Photo taken by the descent imaging camera on Dec. 14, 2013 shows lunar landscape during Chang'e-3 lunar probe's landing at an altitude of 99 meters.  Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Photo taken by the descent imaging camera on Dec. 14, 2013 shows lunar landscape during Chang’e-3 lunar probe’s landing at an altitude of 99 meters. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Photo taken by the descent imaging camera on Dec. 14, 2013 shows lunar landscape during Chang'e-3 lunar probe's landing at an altitude of 7.9 kilometers.  Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Photo taken by the descent imaging camera on Dec. 14, 2013 shows lunar landscape during Chang’e-3 lunar probe’s landing at an altitude of 7.9 meters. Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

The landmark Chang’e-3 mission marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to touchdown on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.

China is only the 3rd country in the world to successfully soft land a spacecraft on Earth’s nearest neighbor after the United States and the Soviet Union.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.

Ken Kremer

Stunning Chang’e-3 Lunar Landing Video gives Astronauts Eye View of Descent & Touchdown

This screen shot from one photo of many of the moons surface snapped by the on-board descent imaging camera of the Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013 shows the probe approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge and approximate location of the landing site in Mare Imbrium. This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body. Image and video rotated 180 degrees.
Credit: Xinhua/CCTV/post processing and annotations Marco Di Lorenzo /Ken Kremer
See the entire stunning Chang’e-3 lunar landing video – below
Story updated

[/caption]

China accomplished a major technological and scientific feat when the country’s ambitious Chang’e-3 robotic spacecraft successfully soft landed on the Moon on Dec. 14 – on their very first attempt to conduct a landing on an extraterrestrial body.

Along the way the descent imaging camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander was furiously snapping photos during the last minutes of the computer guided descent.

For a firsthand look at all the thrilling action, be sure to check out the stunning landing video, below, which gives an astronauts eye view of the dramatic descent and touchdown by China’s inaugural lunar lander and rover mission.

The video was produced from a compilation of descent camera imagery. The version here has been rotated 180 degrees – so you don’t have to flip yourself over to enjoy the ride.

And it truly harkens back to the glory days of NASA’s manned Apollo lunar landing program of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows a picture of the moon surface taken by the on-board camera of lunar probe Chang'e-3 on the screen of the Beijing Aer Control Center in Beijing.   This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.  Credit: Xinhua/CCTV
This is one photo from many of the moons surface snapped by the on-board descent imaging camera of the Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body. Credit: Xinhua/CCTV
See the entire stunning Chang’e-3 lunar landing video – herein

The dramatic Chang’e-3 soft landing took place at Mare Imbrium at 8:11 am EST, 9:11 p.m. Beijing local time, 1311 GMT, which is to the east of the announced landing site on the lava filled plains of the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region.

The precise landing coordinates were 44.1260°N and 19.5014°W -located below the Montes Recti mountain ridge and about 40 kilometers south of the 6 kilometer diameter crater known as Laplace F – see image below.

Landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013.
Landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013.

The video begins as Chang’e-3 is approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge which is about 90 km in length. Its peaks rise to nearly 2 km.

Chang’e-3 carried out the rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area in Mare Imbrium.

The vehicles thrusters then fire to pivot the lander towards the surface at about the 2:40 minute mark when it’s at an altitude of roughly 3 km.

Infographic shows the process of the soft-landing on the moon of China's lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. Credit: SASTIND/Xinhua /Zheng Yue
Infographic shows the process of the soft-landing on the moon of China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. Credit: SASTIND/Xinhua /Zheng Yue

The powered descent was autonomous and preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not by mission controllers on Earth stationed at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) in Beijing.

Altogether it took about 12 minutes using the variable thrust engine which can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons.

The variable thrust engine enabled Chang’e-3 to reduce its deceleration as it approached the moons rugged surface.

Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows the landing spot of lunar probe Chang'e-3  indicated on the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, capital of China. Credit: Xinhua/Li
Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows the landing spot of lunar probe Chang’e-3 indicated on the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, capital of China. Credit: Xinhua/Li

The 1200 kg lander was equipped with unprecedented terrain recognition equipment and software to hover above the landing site and confirm it was safe before proceeding.

This enabled the craft to avoid hazardous rock and boulder fields as well as craters in the pockmarked terrain that could spell catastrophe even in the final seconds before touchdown, if the vehicle were to land directly on top of them.

The descent engine continued firing to lower the lander until it was hovering some 100 meters above the lunar surface – at about the 5:10 minute mark.

Chang'e-3 hovered 100m high for 20 seconds before committing to land. This allows the on-board computer to make sure it doesn't land in a crater or an uneven place.  Credit: China Space
Chang’e-3 hovered 100m high for 20 seconds before committing to land. This allows the on-board computer to make sure it doesn’t land in a crater or an uneven place. Credit: China Space

After hovering for about 20 seconds and determining it was safe to proceed, the lander descended further to about 3 meters. The engine then cut off and the lander free fell the remaining distance. The impact was cushioned by shock absorbers.

There is a noticeable dust cloud visible on impact as the Chang’e-3 mothership touched down atop the plains of Mare Imbrium.

Chang'e-3 lander imaged by the rover Yutu on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013.  Note landing ramp at bottom. Credit: CCTV
Chang’e-3 lander imaged by the rover Yutu on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013. Note landing ramp at bottom. Credit: CCTV

Barely 7 hours later, China’s first ever lunar rover ‘Yutu’ rolled majestically down a pair of ramps and onto the Moon’s soil on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time.

The six wheeled ‘Yutu’, or Jade Rabbit, rover drove straight off the ramps and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt.

China's first lunar rover separates from Chang'e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua/post processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
China’s first lunar rover separates from Chang’e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua/post processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The stunning feat was broadcast on China’s state run CCTV.

China thus became only the 3rd country in the world to successfully soft land a spacecraft on Earth’s nearest neighbor after the United States and the Soviet Union.

It’s been nearly four decades since the prior lunar landing was accomplished by the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 sample return spacecraft back in 1976.

America’s last visit to the Moon’s surface occurred with the manned Apollo 17 landing mission – crewed by astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt , who coincidentally ascended from the lunar soil on Dec. 14, 1972 – exactly 41 years ago.

China’s Chang’e-3 probe joins NASA’s newly arrived LADEE lunar probe which entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following a spectacular night time blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rover and more news.

Ken KremerMoon map showing landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013 below Montes Recti in Mare Imbrium beside Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows .  Credit: China Space Moon map showing landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013 below Montes Recti in Mare Imbrium beside Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows . Credit: China Space[/caption]

Image shows the trajectory of the lunar probe Chang'e-3 approaching the landing site  on Dec. 14.
Image shows the trajectory of the lunar probe Chang’e-3 approaching the landing site on Dec. 14.

China Unveils High Resolution Global Moon Map

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Chinese scientists have assembled the highest resolution map ever created of the entire Moon and unveiled a series of global Moon images on Monday, Feb. 6.

The composite Lunar maps were created from over 700 individual images captured by China’s Chang’e-2 spacecraft and released by the country’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND), according to reports from the state run Xinhua and CCTV new agencies.

“The map and images are the highest-resolution photos of the entirety of the Moon’s surface to be published thus far,” said Liu Dongkui, deputy chief commander of China’s lunar probe project, reports Xinhua.

Of course there are much higher resolution photos of numerous individual locations on the Moon taken from orbit by the spacecraft of other countries and from the surface by NASA’s Apollo lunar landing astronauts as well as unmanned Russian & American lunar landers and rovers.

China unveils High Resolution Global Moon map from Chang'e-2 Lunar Orbiter
Credit: China Space Program

Chang’e-2 is China’s second lunar probe and achieved orbit around our nearest neighbor in space in October 2010. It was launched on Oct. 1, 2010 and is named after a legendary Chinese moon goddess.

The images were snapped between October 2010 and May 2011 using a charge-coupled device (CCD) stereo camera as the spacecraft flew overhead in a highly elliptical orbit ranging from 15 km to 100 km altitude.

The Chang’e-2 maps have a resolution of 7 meters, which is 17 times greater than from China’s first lunar orbiter; Chang’e-1, launched in 2007.

Global Lunar Map from China’s Chang'e-2 Lunar Orbiter. Credit: China Space Program

In fact the maps are detailed enough that Chinese scientists were able to detect traces of the Apollo landers, said Yan Jun, chief application scientist for China’s lunar exploration project.


Chang’e-2 also captured high resolution photos of the “Sinus Iridum”area , or Bay of Rainbows, where China may land their next Moon mission. The camera had the ability to resolve features as small as 1 meter across at the lowest altitude.

The satellite left lunar orbit in June 2011 and is currently orbiting the moon’s second Lagrange Point (L2), located more than 1.5 million km away from Earth.

Chinese space program officials hope for a 2013 liftoff of the Chang’e-3 lunar rover, on what would be China’s first ever landing on another celestial body. China’s next step beyond the rover may be to attempt a lunar sample return mission in 2017.

Demonstrating the ability to successfully conduct an unmanned lunar landing is a key milestone that must be achieved before China can land astronauts on the Moon, perhaps within the next decade.

NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft recently achieved Lunar orbit over the New Year’s weekend. The duo of probes were just renamed as “Ebb and Flow” – the winning entries in an essay naming contest submitted by 4th Grade US students from Bozeman, Montana.

At this time NASA does not have the funding or an approved robotic lunar landing mission, due to severe budget cuts.And even worse NASA cuts will be announced shortly !

Russia hopes to send the Lunar Glob spacecraft to land on the Moon around 2015.

Since the United States has unilaterally scuttled its plans to return American astronauts to the Moon’s surface, it’s very possible that the next flag planted on the Moon by humans will be Chinese.