China Launches Moon Mission to Test Key Lunar Sample Return Technologies

China launched a robotic mission to the Moon today (Oct. 23 EDT/Oct. 24 BJT) that will test a slew of key technologies required for safely delivering samples gathered from the Moon’s surface and returning them to Earth later this decade for analysis by researchers.

Today’s unmanned launch of what has been dubbed “Chang’e-5 T1” is a technology testbed serving as a precursor for China’s planned Chang’e-5 probe, a future mission aimed at conducting China’s first lunar sample return mission in 2017.

“Chang’e-5 T1” was successfully launched atop an advanced Long March-3C rocket at 2 AM Beijing local time (BJT), 1800 GMT, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province.

“The test spacecraft separated from its carrier rocket and entered the expected the orbit shortly after the liftoff, according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND),” says the official Xinhua news agency. The launch was not broadcast live.

The return capsule was placed on a lunar transfer trajectory that will take it on a simple eight day roundtrip flight around the Moon and journey back to Earth. The orbit had a perigee of 209 kilometers and will reach an apogee of some 380,000 kilometers and swing halfway around the Moon, but not enter lunar orbit.

Ignition and liftoff of the unmanned Chang'e 5 T1 lunar spacecraft atop a Long March-3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China on Oct. 24, 2014, BJT (Oct. 23 EDT).  Credit: Xinhua/Jiang Hongjing
Ignition and liftoff of the unmanned Chang’e-5 T1 lunar spacecraft atop a Long March-3C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China on Oct. 24, 2014, BJT (Oct. 23 EDT). Credit: Xinhua/Jiang Hongjing

The probe was developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The service module is based on China’s earlier Chang’e-2 spacecraft and the capsule somewhat resembles a mini-Shenzhou.

On its return, the probe will hit the Earth’s atmosphere at about 11.2 kilometers per second for reentry and a parachute assisted landing. The capsule is targeted to soft land in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The goal is to test and validate guidance, navigation and control, heat shield, and trajectory design technologies required for the sample return capsule’s safe re-entry following a lunar touchdown mission and collection of soil and rock samples from the lunar surface – planned for the Chang’e-5 mission.

Technicians at work testing the  Chang'e-5T1 return capsule. Credit: Spacechina.com
Technicians at work testing the Chang’e-5 T1 return capsule. Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation/ Spacechina.com

China hopes to launch the Chang’e-5 mission in 2017 as the third step in the nation’s ambitious lunar exploration program.

The first step involved a pair of highly successful lunar orbiters named Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 which launched in 2007 and 2010, respectively.

The second step involved the hugely successful Chang’e-3 mothership lander and piggybacked Yutu moon rover which safely touched down on the Moon at Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) on Dec. 14, 2013 – marking China’s first successful spacecraft landing on an extraterrestrial body in history, and chronicled extensively in my reporting here.

This time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at two different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-18, 2013. This view was taken from the 360-degree panorama. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo.   See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014:  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm
This time-lapse color panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 lander shows the Yutu rover at two different positions during its trek over the Moon’s surface at its landing site from Dec. 15-18, 2013. This view was taken from the 360-degree panorama. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo. See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm

See below our time-lapse photo mosaic showing China’s Yutu rover dramatically trundling across the Moon’s stark gray terrain in the first weeks after she rolled all six wheels onto the desolate lunar plains.

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.htm
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.htm

The complete time-lapse mosaic shows Yutu at three different positions trekking around the landing site, and gives a real sense of how it maneuvered around on its 1st Lunar Day.

The 360 degree panoramic mosaic was created by the imaging team of scientists Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo from images captured by the color camera aboard Chang’e-3 lander and was featured at Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on Feb. 3, 2014.

Although Yutu was initially very successful, it encountered difficulties about six weeks after rolling onto the surface which prevented it from roving further across the surface and accomplishing some of its science objectives.

China’s space officials are currently evaluating whether they will proceed with launching the Chang’e-4 lunar landing mission in 2016, which was a backup probe to Chang’e-3.

China is pushing forward with plans to start building a manned space station later this decade and considering whether to launch astronauts to the Moon by the mid 2020s or later.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about NASA Human and Robotic Spaceflight at Ken’s upcoming presentations:

Oct 26/27: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launch from Virginia”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA

China’s Chang’e-3 Moon Rover Descends to Lower Orbit Sets Up Historic Soft Landing

All systems appear to be “GO” for the world’s first attempt to soft land a space probe on the Moon in nearly four decades.

China’s maiden moon landing probe – Chang’e-3 – is slated to attempt the history making landing this weekend on a lava plain in the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region.

Chinese space engineers at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) paved the way for the historic touchdown by successfully commanding Chang’e-3 to descend from the 100 km-high lunar circular orbit it reached just one week ago on Dec. 6, to “an elliptical orbit with its nearest point about 15 km away from the moon’s surface”, according to a statement from China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND).

UPDATE: CCTV is providing live landing coverage

The first pictures taken from the alien lunar surface in some 37 years are expected to be transmitted within days or hours of touchdown planned as early as Saturday, Dec. 14, at 9:40 p.m. Beijing local time, 8:40 a.m. EST.

CCTV, China’s state run network, carried the launch live. It remains to be seen whether they will have live coverage of the landing since there have been no programming announcements.

SASTIND said the orbit lowering thruster firing was “conducted above the dark side of the moon at 9:20 p.m.” on Dec. 10, Beijing local time.

Confirmation of the Chang’e-3 probes new, lower orbit was received four minutes later.

China's lunar probe Chang'e-3 entered an orbit closer to the moon on Dec. 10, 2013. (Xinhua)
China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3 entered an orbit closer to the moon on Dec. 10, 2013. Credit: Xinhua

If successful, the Chang’e-3 mission will mark the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 24 sample return vehicle landed back in 1976.

China would join an elite club of three, including the United States, who have mastered the critical technology to successfully touch down on Earth’s nearest neighbor.

The Chang’e-3 mission is comprised of China’s ‘Yutu’ lunar lander riding piggyback atop a much larger four legged landing probe.

Artists concept of the Chinese Chang'e 3 lander and rover on the lunar surface.  Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering
Artists concept of the Chinese Chang’e-3 lander and rover on the lunar surface. Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering

The voyage from the Earth to the Moon began 12 days ago with the flawless launch of Chang’e-3 atop China’s Long March 3-B booster at 1:30 a.m. Beijing local time, Dec. 2, 2013 (12:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 1) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in southwest China.

Chang’e-3 will make a powered descent to the Moon’s surface on Dec. 14 by firing the landing thrusters at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing in a preselected area on the Bay of Rainbows.

The powered descent will take about 12 minutes.

The variable thrust engine can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons, according to Xinhua.

The Bay of Rainbows is located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. It was imaged in high resolution by China’s prior lunar mission – the Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter.

The 1200 kg lander is equipped with terrain recognition equipment and software to avoid rock and boulder fields that could spell catastrophe even in the final seconds before touchdown if the vehicle were to land directly on top of them.

Chang’e-3 is powered by a combination of solar arrays and a nuclear device in order to survive the two week long lunar nights.

The six-wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover, with a rocker bogie suspension, will be lowered in stages to the moon’s surface in a complex operation and then drive off a pair of landing ramps to explore the moon’s terrain.

Yutu measures 150 centimeters high and weighs approximately 120 kilograms and sports a robotic arm equipped with science instruments.

The rover and lander are equipped with multiple cameras, spectrometers, an optical telescope, ground penetrating radar and other sensors to investigate the lunar surface and composition.

The radar instrument installed at the bottom of the rover can penetrate 100 meters deep below the surface to study the Moon’s structure and composition in unprecedented detail.

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 Kremer

China’s Maiden Moon Rover Mission Chang’e 3 Achieves Lunar Orbit

China’s maiden moon landing probe successfully entered lunar orbit on Friday, Dec. 6, following Sunday’s (Dec. 1) spectacular blastoff – setting the stage for the historic touchdown attempt in mid December.

Engineer’s at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) commanded the Chang’e 3 lunar probe to fire its braking thrusters for 361 seconds, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

The do or die orbital insertion maneuver proceeded precisely as planned at the conclusion of a four and a half day voyage to Earth’s nearest neighbor.

China’s ‘Yutu’ lunar lander is riding piggyback atop the four legged landing probe during the history making journey from the Earth to the Moon.

Liftoff of China’s first ever lunar rover on Dec. 2 local China time from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China. Credit: CCTV
Liftoff of China’s first ever lunar rover on Dec. 2 local China time (Dec. 1 EST) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China. Credit: CCTV

The critical engine burn placed Chang’e 3 into its desired 100 kilometer (60 mi.) high circular orbit above the Moon’s surface at 5:53 p.m. Friday, Beijing Time (4:53 a.m. EST).

An engine failure would have doomed the mission.

Chang’e 3 is due to make a powered descent to the Moon’s surface on Dec. 14, firing the landing thrusters at an altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing in a preselected area called the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum region.

The Bay of Rainbows is a lava filled crater located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. It is 249 km in diameter.

The variable thrust engine can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons, according to Xinhua.

The lander is equipped with terrain recognition equipment and software to avoid rock and boulder fields that could spell catastrophe in the final seconds before touchdown if vehicle were to land directly on top of them.

The voyage began with the flawless launch of Chang’e 3 atop China’s Long March 3-B booster at 1:30 a.m. Beijing local time, Dec. 2, 2013 (12:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 1) from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, in southwest China.

If successful, the Chang’e 3 mission will mark the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 24 sample return vehicle landed nearly four decades ago back in 1976.

Chang’e 3 targeted lunar landing site in the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum
Chang’e 3 targeted lunar landing site in the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum

The name for the ‘Yutu’ rover – which means ‘Jade Rabbit’ – was chosen after a special naming contest involving a worldwide poll and voting to select the best name.

‘Yutu’ stems from a Chinese fairy tale, in which the goddess Chang’e flew off to the moon taking her little pet Jade rabbit with her.

The six-wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover will be lowered in stages to the moon’s surface in a complex operation and then drive off a pair of landing ramps to explore the moon’s terrain.

Yutu measures 150 centimeters high and weighs approximately 120 kilograms.

The rover and lander are equipped with multiple cameras, spectrometers, an optical telescope, radar and other sensors to investigate the lunar surface and composition.

Spectacular view of Chang’e 3 thruster firings after separation from upper stage with Earth in the background. Credit: CCTV
Spectacular view of Chang’e 3 thruster firings after separation from upper stage with Earth in the background. Credit: CCTV

Chang’e 3 marks the beginning of the second phase of China’s lunar robotic exploration program.

The lander follows a pair of highly successful lunar orbiters named Chang’e 1 and 2 which launched in 2007 and 2010.

The next step will be an unmanned lunar sample return mission, perhaps by 2020.

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

Stay tuned here for continuing Chang’e 3, LADEE, MAVEN and MOM news and Ken’s SpaceX and MAVEN launch reports from on site at Cape Canaveral & the Kennedy Space Center press site.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Chang’e 3, SpaceX, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Dec 10: “Antares ISS Launch from Virginia, Mars and SpaceX Mission Update”, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM

Bazinga: Mysterious Earth Orbiting Asteroid Turns Out to be Space Junk

Can’t find asteroid 2010 QW1 in the Minor Planet Database? No, the “Men in Black” didn’t secretly remove this Earth-orbiting asteroid from the listing… but recent top-notch detective work by astronomers did.

The mystery of this object all started back on August 23rd of this year, when the PanSTARRS sky survey based on the summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui in Hawai’i spotted an asteroid that was given the provisional designation of 2013 QW1.

The object was in a wide-ranging orbit around the Earth, leading astronomers to wonder if it was a naturally captured asteroid or perhaps space debris from a previous launch. Either solution to the dilemma would be fascinating. Our large Moon keeps the Earth pretty well swept clear of debris, though a “second Moon,” however small, would be an interesting find. And if 2013 QW1 were to prove artificial, it just might be a piece of history.

The European Space Agency’s NEO Coordination Centre decided to take up the challenge. A call went out to track and observe the 2013 QW1, and a team led by Elisabetta Dotto of INAF-Observatorio di Roma & Maria Barucci & Davide Perna of the Observatoire de Paris managed to get time on the Italian Telescopio Nazaionale Galileo based at La Palma to obtain a spectrum of the object.

“It was a bit of a challenge, because the object was moving fast with respect to a typical NEO,” said Dr. Perna in a recent ESA press release.

The team used an instrument known as DOLORES to make the crucial measurements. DOLORES stands for the Device Optimized for LOw RESolution. The spectrum obtained in the early morning hours of August 25th shows something much brighter than your typical asteroid, but is characteristic of a painted metallic object.

The launch of Chan'ge-2 with 3rd stage (arrowed) now known as 2010 Q (Credit CALT).
The launch of Chan’ge-2 with 3rd stage (arrowed) now known as 2013 QW1 (Credit: CALT).

And thus, 2013 QW1 was removed from the ledger of NEO asteroids maintained by the IAU Minor Planet Center (MPEC). And the leading suspect? The third stage booster of a Chinese Long March 3C rocket that launched the Chang’e 2 spacecraft from Xichang, China on October 1st, 2010.

Chang’e-2 entered lunar orbit 8 days after launch, and departed on June 8th of the following year after studying and mapping the Moon. Chang’e-2 then went on to become the first spacecraft to directly reach the L2 Lagrange point 1.5 million kilometres beyond Earth from lunar orbit. The spacecraft also made the first flyby of NEO asteroid 4179 Toutatis on December 13th of last year. The probe is estimated to continue functioning into 2014, and will be used to hone China’s ability to track objects in deep space.

The NORAD tracking identification assigned to the 3rd stage booster that launched Chan’ge-2 is 2010-50B.

This sort of discovery is not without precedent.

The launch of Apollo 12, with the 2nd stage arrowed. (Credit: NASA).
The launch of Apollo 12, with the 3rd stage (arrowed) would one day be “asteroid Joo2E3”. (Credit: NASA).

On September 3rd, 2002, amateur astronomer Bill Yeung discovered an asteroid tentatively designated J002E3. Subsequent studies revealed that the asteroid had a spectrum consistent with that of titanium oxide paint, a decidedly unasteroid-like coating for a space rock to sport. This was, however, a common veneer in use during the Apollo era, and it is now known that J002E3 is the S-IVB third stage booster that launched the second mission to land men on the Moon on November 14th, 1969. Unlike other boosters, such as the one that launched Apollo 14, the Apollo 12 3rd stage did not impact the Moon as part of seismic experiments. After a brief period as a “pseudo-moon” of the Earth, J002E3 was kicked out into solar orbit in June 2003 and may return to our neighborhood once again in the 2040s.     

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has documented the lunar crash sites of these historic boosters. It’s of note that the Apollo 10 Lunar Module Snoopy remains discarded out in solar orbit as well, having been used as a dress rehearsal for the historic Apollo 11 landing. Apollo 10 never landed on the Moon. Efforts have been made by UK astronomer Nick Howes to recover it as well.

And there are more relics of the Space Age awaiting discovery. One of the first things we always check in the case of a pass by a newly discovered NEO closer than the Moon to the Earth is its history, to see if it matches up with any launches headed out beyond Earth orbit in the past.

And the upcoming Mars launches of MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission in October & November will be the first to depart Earth orbit since 2011. These will give future generations of asteroid hunters new human-made space hardware to ponder.

The B612 Foundation’s asteroid-hunting Sentinel Space Telescope will also “up the game,” scouting for asteroids from a vantage point interior to the Earth’s orbit. Sentinel is slated for launch in 2016 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

And no, the fabled “Black Knight” satellite of UFO conspiracy buffs’ dreams is nowhere to be found.

What other fascinating relics of the Space Age lie are out there in the solar system, waiting to tell their tale?

‘Space Class’ Among Aims of Chinese Taikonauts Who Left Earth Today

Riding atop a fiery Long March rocket, three taikonauts blasted off from Earth today (June 11) to kick off an expected 15-day mission in space that will include the first Chinese “space class” from orbit.

Shenzhou 10 departed the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 5:38 a.m. EDT (9:38 a.m. UTC), or 5:38 p.m. local time at the complex’s location in the Gobi desert. Aboard the spacecraft were one woman (Wang Yaping) and two men (Nie Haisheng and Zhang Xiaoguang). Their next destination is the Chinese Tiangong-1 station.

China has a young manned space program. The first spaceflight with people was just a decade ago, in October 2003, and this is the fifth crewed mission since that time.

While China’s government keeps its long-term ambitions fairly private, observers in the United States and China point to its robotic moon missions as evidence that China is considering a manned lunar mission in the coming decades.

Shenzhou 10’s ultimate destination, however, is the Earth-orbiting, nine-ton Tiangong-1. Like the early U.S. and Soviet space stations, the Chinese one is fairly small (a single module) and serves as an experimental testbed for space station work. Taikonauts also visited the space station during Shenzhou 9 in 2012.

The taikonauts have four main ambitions during the Shenzhou 10 mission, the China Manned Space Engineering government office stated:

– Launch crew and cargo aboard Shenzhou 10 and verify rendezvous and docking technology for the meeting with Tiangong-1;

– Further test Tiangong-1’s capabilities to support humans;

The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft and Long March 2F/Y10 carrier rocket at the launchpad in early June 2013. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering
The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft and Long March 2F/Y10 carrier rocket at the launchpad in early June 2013. Credit: China Manned Space Engineering

– Conduct several experiments (focusing on space adaptability, space operation ergonomics and unspecified space science work), perform maintenance and do a “space class” with students;

– To see how well the CMSE is performing on a systems basis.

“To further improve the safety, reliability and to be suitable for the specific requirements of this mission,” stated spokesperson Wu Ping, “partial technical alterations have been made in [the] Shenzhou 10 spaceship and Long March 2F Y10 rocket.

“During this mission,” she added, “taikonauts will change and repair some of the equipment and facilities in Tiangong-1 through on-orbit operations.”

In the first few hours after launch, the CMSE stated that all systems are performing normally.

“The Shenzhou 10 spaceship has accurately entered its orbit and the crew members [are] in good condition,” stated Zhang Youxia, chief commander of China’s manned space program.

The mission drew praise from China’s president, Xi Jinping, who sent the crew good wishes just before they left Earth.

An artist's rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China's space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011.  To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA
An artist’s rendering of the Tiangong-1 module, China’s space station, which was launched to space in September, 2011. To the right is a Shenzhou spacecraft, preparing to dock with the module. Image Credit: CNSA

“You have made Chinese people feel proud of ourselves,” Xi told the crew, according to a BBC report.

“You have trained and prepared yourselves carefully and thoroughly, so I am confident in your completing the mission successfully. I wish you success and look forward to your triumphant return.”

China ultimately plans to launch a larger space station sometime around 2020, which would include several modules.

The European Space Agency is considering working more closely with China around that time, the BBC added, and some astronauts have already starting Chinese language training.

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.

Cool Chang’E 2 Videos

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society blog unearthed some really cool videos taken by the Chinese Chang’E 2 spacecraft at the Moon. The five engineering videos include Chang’E 2’s solar panel deployment, orbit insertion burn, the first and second orbital trim maneuvers, and low lunar orbit. They are all especially unique in that the video not only includes images from the Moon’s surface, but also the spacecraft itself can be seen, providing a perspective that is not often seen. The video above is of Chang’E 2’s second orbit trim maneuver. Check out Emily’s post to see all five, plus she provides great insights into the video clips, as well.

First Images From Chang’E 2 Released

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China’s space agency released the first images taken by the newest lunar orbiter, Chang’E 2. “The relaying back of the pictures shows that the Chang’e-2 mission is a success,” said Zhang Jiahao, director of the lunar exploration center of the China National Space Administration.

During its expected 6-month mission the orbiter will come within 15km above the surface, with the main mission of looking for potential landing for Chang’E-3, China’s next lunar mission that will send a rover to the Moon’s surface, scheduled for 2013. While all the other images are of Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows), a rough translation of the writing on this top image has something to do with “antarctic,” so its possible this could be a crater near one of the lunar poles.

This 3-D map view of the moon’s Bay of Rainbows was taken by China’s Chang’e 2 lunar probe in October 2010. The mission is China’s second robotic mission to explore the moon. Credit: China Lunar Exploration Program

The data for this 3D image was taken by a the spacecraft’s stereo camera from 18.7 km on Oct. 28, four days after launch. The image has a resolution of 1.3 meters per pixel, more than ten times the resolution of pictures from Chang’E 2’s predecessor, Chang’E 1.

For comparison, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has a resolution of about 1 meter.

Sinus Iridum is considered to be one of the candidates for the 2013 lander.

Chang’E 2 will also test “soft landing” technology for the lander, which might mean that either the spacecraft is carrying an impactor or that the spacecraft itself will be crashed into the lunar surface like Chang’E 1.

This photo, taken by China’s Chang’e 2 lunar probe in October 2010, shows a crater in the moon’s Bay of Rainbows. . Credit: China Lunar Exploration Program
Another Chang'E 2 image. Credit: Credit: China Lunar Exploration Program

Sources: NASA Lunar Science Institute, China National Space Administration

China Launches Second Moon Mission

China successfully launched their second robotic mission, Chang’E-2, to the Moon. A Long March 3C rocket blasted off from Xichang launch center just before 1100 GMT on October 1. The satellite is scheduled to reach the Moon in five days, and so far, all the telemetry shows everything to be working as planned. It will take some time for Chang’E-2 to settle into its 100-km (60-mile) orbit above the lunar surfaces, although the China space agency also said the spacecraft will come as close as 15km above the surface during its mission in order to take high-resolution imagery of potential landing sites for Chang’E-3, China’s next lunar mission that will send a rover to the Moon’s surface, scheduled for 2013.
Continue reading “China Launches Second Moon Mission”