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

NASA Extends LADEE Dust Explorer for Bonus Lunar Science

Depiction of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory as it approaches lunar orbit.Credit: NASA Ames/Dana Berry
LADEE will now orbit far lower than ever before – details below![/caption]

LADEE, NASA’s latest lunar orbiter, is getting a new lease on life and will live a little longer to study the mysteries of the body’s tenuous atmosphere, or exosphere, and make surprising new discoveries while hugging Earth’s nearest neighbor even tighter than ever before, the team told Universe Today.

NASA has announced that the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission will be granted a month long extension since the residual rocket fuel is more than anticipated due to the expertise of LADEE’s navigation engineers.

This is great news because it means LADEE’s three research instruments will collect a big bonus of science measurements about the pristine lunar atmosphere and dust during an additional 28 days in an ultra tight low orbit skimming around the Moon.

And the extension news follows closely on the heels of LADEE being photographed in lunar orbit for the first time by a powerful camera aboard NASA’s five year old Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), her orbital NASA sister – detailed here.

This dissolve  animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE  captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE .  LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit:  NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
This dissolve animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE . LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

LADEE is currently flying around the moon’s equator at altitudes ranging barely eight to 37 miles (12-60 kilometers) above the surface which crosses over from lunar day to lunar night approximately every two hours.

During the extended mission lasting an additional full lunar cycle, LADEE will fly even lower to within a few miles (km) thereby allowing scientists an exceptional vantage point to unravel the mysteries of the moon’s atmosphere.

Just how low will LADEE fly?

I asked Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

“We will be taking LADEE from its nominal 20 to 50 kilometer periapsis right down to the treetops — we want to get data from 5 kilometers or even less!” Elphic told me.

“So far we’ve been keeping a healthy margin for spacecraft safety, but after the nominal mission is completed, we will relax those requirements in the interest of new science.”

With the measurements collected so far the science team has already established a baseline of data for the tenuous lunar atmosphere, or exosphere, and dust impacts, says NASA.

Therefore the LADEE team is free to fly the spacecraft much lower than ever before.

And why even go to lower altitudes? I asked Elphic.

Basically because the team hopes to see changes in the particle density and composition.

“The density depends on the species. For instance, argon-40 is heavier than neon-20, and has a lower scale height. That means we should see a big increase in argon compared to neon.”

“And we may see the heavier species for the first time at these really low altitudes.”

“It’s remotely possible we’ll see krypton, for instance.”

“But the real boon will be in the dust measurements.”

“LDEX (The Lunar Dust Experiment) will be measuring dust densities very close to the surface, and we will see if something new shows up. Each time we’ve dropped our orbit down to lower altitudes, we’ve been surprised by new things,” Elphic told Universe Today.

The Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS) instrument will measure the identity and abundances of the exospheres constituents, such as argon, neon and krypton.

LADEE Science Instrument locations
LADEE Science Instrument locations

With the extension, LADEE is expected to continue capturing data in orbit until about April 21, 2014, depending on the usage of the declining on board fuel to feed its maneuvering thrusters.

“LADEE is investigating the moons tenuous exosphere, trace outgases like the sodium halo and lofted dust at the terminator,” Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director at NASA HQ, told me earlier in an exclusive interview.

“The spacecraft has a mass spectrometer to identify the gases, a physical dust detector and an imager to look at scattered light from the dust. These processes also occur at asteroids.”

The Lunar Dust Experiment (LDEX) recorded dust impacts as soon as its cover opened, says NASA and is also seeing occasional bursts of dust impacts caused by meteoroid showers, such as the Geminids.

By studying the raised lunar dust, scientists also hope to solve a 40 year old mystery – Why did the Apollo astronauts and early unmanned landers see a glow of rays and streamers at the moon’s horizon stretching high into the lunar sky.

The science mission duration had initially been planned to last approximately 100 days and finish with a final impact on the Moon on about March 24th.

And the team had told me before launch that an extension was rather unlikely since the spacecraft would be flying in such a very low science orbit of about 50 kilometers altitude above the moon that it will require considerable fuel to maintain.

“LADEE is limited by the amount of onboard fuel required to maintain orbit,” Doug Voss, launch manager, Wallops, told me.

So what accounts for the extension?

Basically it’s because of the expert navigation by NASA’s engineers and the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket and upper stages following the spectacular night time LADEE blastoff from NASA Wallops, VA, on Sept. 6, 2013 and subsequent insertion into lunar orbit.

“The launch vehicle performance and orbit capture burns using LADEE’s onboard engines were extremely accurate, so the spacecraft had significant propellant remaining to enable extra science,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at NASA’s Ames where the mission was designed, built, tested, in a NASA statement.

“This extension represents a tremendous increase in the amount of science data returned from the mission.”

Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“LADEE launched with 134.5 kilograms of fuel. After the third lunar orbit insertion burn (LOI-3), 80% of our fuel had been consumed,” said Dawn McIntosh, LADEE deputy project manager at NASA Ames Research Center, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

“Additional orbit-lowering maneuvers with the orbital control system (OCS) and reaction control system (RCS) of approximately 40 seconds were used to get LADEE into the science orbit.

And LADEE’s orbit capture was accomplished amidst the ridiculous US government shutdown with a skeleton crew.

The spacecraft finally entered its planned two hour science orbit around the moon’s equator on Nov. 20.

So LADEE’s orbital lifetime depends entirely on the remaining quantity of rocket fuel.

“LADEE has about 20 kg of propellant remaining today,” Butler Hine told Universe Today.

The 844 pound (383 kg) robot explorer is the size of a couch and was assembled at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and is a cooperative project with NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland.

Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The $280 million probe is built on a revolutionary ‘modular common spacecraft bus’, or body, that could dramatically cut the cost of exploring space and also be utilized on space probes to explore a wide variety of inviting targets in the solar system.

“LADEE is the first in a new class of interplanetary exploration missions,” NASA Ames Center Director Pete Worden told me in an interview. “It will study the pristine moon to study significant questions.”

“This is probably our last best chance to study the pristine Moon before there is a lot of human activity there changing things.”

To date LADEE has traveled over 1 million miles and in excess of 1200 equatorial orbits around the Moon.

LADEE is also searching for any changes caused to the exosphere and dust by the landing of China’s maiden Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu moon rover in December 2013.

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

Ken Kremer

LADEE_Poster_01

Paul Mahaffy, LADEE Neutral Mass Spectrometer (NMS) instrument, principal investigator, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss LADEE science at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Paul Mahaffy, LADEE Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument, principal investigator, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss LADEE science at NASA Wallops Flight Facility, VA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Close Encounters of the Lunar Kind – LRO images LADEE

This dissolve animation compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE captured on Jan 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled image of LADEE . LRO and LADEE are both NASA science spacecraft currently in orbit around the Moon. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
Story updated[/caption]

A pair of NASA spacecraft orbiting Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor just experienced a brief ‘Close Encounter of the Lunar Kind’.

Proof of the rare orbital tryst has now been revealed by NASA in the form of spectacular imagery (see above and below) just released showing NASA’s recently arrived Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lunar orbiter being photographed by a powerful camera aboard NASA’s five year old Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – as the two orbiters met for a fleeting moment just two weeks ago.

See above a dissolve animation that compares the LRO image (geometrically corrected) of LADEE captured on Jan. 14, 2014 with a computer-generated and labeled LADEE image.

All this was only made possible by a lot of very precise orbital calculations and a spacecraft ballet of sorts that had to be nearly perfectly choreographed and timed – and spot on to accomplish.

This subsection of the LRO image, expanded four times, shows the smeared view of LADEE against the lunar background..   LADEE is about 2 meters in the long direction. Lunar scene about 81 meter wide.  Credit:  NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
This subsection of the LRO image, expanded four times, shows the smeared view of LADEE against the lunar background. LADEE is about 2 meters in the long direction. Lunar scene about 81 meter wide. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Both sister orbiters were speeding along at over 3600 MPH (1,600 meters per second) while traveling perpendicularly to one another!

So the glimpse was short but sweet.

LADEE flies in an equatorial orbit (east-to-west) while LRO travels in a polar orbit (south-to-north). LADEE achieved lunar orbit on Oct. 6, 2013 amidst the federal government shutdown.

Thus their orbits align only infrequently.

The LRO orbiter did a pirouette to precisely point its high resolution narrow angle camera (NAC) while hurtling along in lunar orbit, barely 5.6 miles (9 km) above LADEE.

And it was all over in less than the wink of an eye!

LADEE entered LRO’s Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) field of view for 1.35 milliseconds and a smeared image of LADEE was snapped. LADEE appears in four lines of the LROC image, and is distorted right-to-left.

Both spacecraft are tiny – barely two meters in length.

“Since LROC is a pushbroom imager, it builds up an image one line at a time, thus catching a target as small and fast as LADEE is tricky!” wrote Mark Robinson, LROC principal investigator of Arizona State University.

So the fabulous picture was only possible as a result of close collaboration and extraordinary teamwork between NASA’s LADEE, LRO and LROC camera mission operations teams.

NASA’s LRO imaged NASA’s LADEE, about 5.6 miles (9 km) beneath it, at 8:11 p.m. EST on Jan. 14, 2014. (LROC NAC image M1144387511LR).  Image width is 821 meters, or about 898 yards.)   Credit:   NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
NASA’s LRO imaged NASA’s LADEE, about 5.6 miles (9 km) beneath it, at 8:11 p.m. EST on Jan. 14, 2014. (LROC NAC image M1144387511LR). Image width is 821 meters, or about 898 yards.) Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

LADEE passed directly beneath the LRO orbit plane a few seconds before LRO crossed the LADEE orbit plane, meaning a straight down LROC image would have just missed LADEE, said NASA.

LRO spacecraft (top) protected by gray colored blankets is equipped with 7 science instruments located at upper right side of spacecraft. LRO cameras are pointing to right. LRO is piggybacked atop NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft.  Payload fairing in background protects the spacecraft during launch and ascent. Credit: Ken Kremer
LRO spacecraft (top) protected by gray colored blankets is equipped with 7 science instruments located at upper right side of spacecraft. LRO cameras are pointing to right. LRO is piggybacked atop NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft. Payload fairing in background protects the spacecraft during launch and ascent. Credit: Ken Kremer

Therefore, LRO was rolled 34 degrees to the west so the LROC detector (one line) would be precisely oriented to catch LADEE as it passed beneath.

“Despite the blur it is possible to find details of the spacecraft. You can see the engine nozzle, bright solar panel, and perhaps a star tracker camera (especially if you have a correctly oriented schematic diagram of LADEE for comparison),” wrote Robinson in a description.

See the LADEE schematic in the lead image herein.

LADEE was launched Sept. 6, 2013 from NASA Wallops in Virginia on a science mission to investigate the composition and properties of the Moon’s pristine and extremely tenuous atmosphere, or exosphere, and untangle the mysteries of its lofted lunar dust.

Since LADEE is now more than halfway through its roughly 100 day long mission, timing was of the essence before the craft takes a death dive into the moon’s surface.

You can see a full scale model of LADEE at the NASA Wallops visitor center, which offers free admission.

Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Full scale model of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on display at the free visitor center at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

LRO launched Sept. 18, 2009 from Cape Canaveral, Florida to conduct comprehensive investigations of the Moon with seven science instruments and search for potential landing sites for a return by human explorers. It has collected astounding views of the lunar surface, including the manned Apollo landing sites as well as a treasure trove of lunar data.

In addition to NASA’s pair of lunar orbiters, China recently soft landed two probes on the Moon.

So be sure to read my new story detailing how LRO took some stupendous Christmas time 2013 images of China’s maiden lunar lander and rover; Chang’e-3 and Yutu from high above- here.

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

Ken Kremer

Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter on Friday night Sept. 6, at 11:27 p.m. EDT on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from NASA Wallops, Virginia, viewing site 2 miles away. Antares rocket launch pad at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

China’s Chang’e-3 Lander and Yutu Moon Rover – from Above and Below

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
See further composite and panorama views below
Story updated
See our Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.html[/caption]

China’s Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu moon rover have been imaged from above and below – in one of those rare, astounding circumstances when space probes from Earth are exploring an extraterrestrial body both from orbit and the surface. And it’s even more amazing when these otherworldly endeavors just happen to overlap and involve actual work in progress to expand human knowledge of the unknown.

And it’s even rarer, when those images stem from active space probes built by two different countries on Earth.

Well by combining imagery from America’s space agency, NASA, and China’s space agency, CNSA, we are pleased to present some breathtaking views of ‘Chang’e-3 and the Yutu rover from Above and Below.’

Check out our composite mosaic (above) combining the view from the Moon’s orbit snapped by the hi res camera aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) with our new color panoramas from the Moon’s surface, compiling imagery from the landing site of China’s Chang’e-3 lander – with Yutu in transit in mid-Dec. 2013 soon after the successful touchdown.

See below an earlier composite mosaic using the first black and white panorama from the Chang’e-3 Moon lander.

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 panorama (top) and orbital view from NASA’s LRO orbiter (bottom).  Chang'e-3 lander B/W panorama from camera 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/Mark Robinson/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
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 panorama (top) and orbital view from NASA’s LRO orbiter (bottom). Chang’e-3 lander B/W panorama from camera 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/Mark Robinson/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The composite mosaic combines the efforts of Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator for the LRO camera, and the imaging team of Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

On Christmas eve, Dec. 24, 2013, NASA’s LRO captured it’s first images of China’s Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu moon rover – barely 10 days after the history making touchdown on Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) and just 60 meters east of the rim of a 450 meter diameter impact crater.

LRO was orbiting about 150 kilometers above Chang’e-3 and Yutu when the highest resolution orbital image was taken on 24 December 22:52:49 EST (25 December 03:52:49 UT).

Image of Chang'e-3 (top arrow) and Yutu rover captured by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on Dec. 25 UTC
Image of Chang’e-3 (top arrow) and Yutu rover captured by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on Dec. 24, 2013

The orbital imagery was taken by the LRO orbiters high resolution Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) – specifically the narrow angle camera (NAC).

See below my pre-launch cleanroom photo of LRO and the LROC cameras and other science instruments.

The Chang’e-3 lander color panorama shows the Yutu rover after it drove down the ramp to the moon’s surface and began driving a significant distance around the landers right side on its journey heading southwards.

1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander. This 1st color panorama from Chang’e-3 lander shows the view all around the landing site after the ‘Yutu’ lunar rover left impressive tracks behind when it initially rolled all six wheels onto the pockmarked and gray lunar terrain on Dec. 15, 2013. Mosaic Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com
1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander
This 1st color panorama from Chang’e-3 lander shows the view all around the landing site after the ‘Yutu’ lunar rover left impressive tracks behind when it initially rolled all six wheels onto the pockmarked and gray lunar terrain on Dec. 15, 2013. Mosaic Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com

Yellow lines connect craters seen in the lander panorama to those seen in the LROC hi res NAC image from LRO, in the composite view.

Robinson identified the lunar craters and determined the field of view on the LROC image.

The LRO image was taken at a later date (on Christmas eve) after the rover had already moved. Red lines on the orbital image indicate the approximate field of view of what is seen in the Chang’e-3 lander panorama.

Although Yutu is only about 150 cm wide – which is the same as the pixel size – it shows up in the NAC images for two reasons.

“The solar panels are very effective at reflecting light so the rover shows up as two bright pixels, and the Sun is setting thus the rover casts a distinct shadow (as does the lander),” says NASA in a statement.

In a historic first for China, the Chang’e-3 spacecraft safely touched down on the Moon at Mare Imbrium near the Bay of Rainbows nearly seven weeks 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.

Yutu was about 10 meters away from the 1200 kg stationary lander when the lander panoramic images were taken.

The lander and Yutu were just completing their 1st Lunar Day of explorations when the LROC images were taken, and entered their first period of hibernation soon thereafter on Dec. 25 (Christmas Day) and Dec 26 respectively coinciding with the start of their 1st Lunar Night.

Both spacecraft awoke and functioned well during their 2nd Lunar Day, which just ended.

However, Yutu’s future mission is now in jeopardy following a serious mechanical anomaly this past weekend as both vehicles entered their 2nd hibernation period.

Apparently one of the solar panels did not fold back properly – perhaps due to dust accumulation – and its instruments may not survive.

Read my full story for complete details – here.

Yutu’s fate will remain unknown until the 3rd Lunar Day starts around Feb. 8 or 9.

So, What’s the terrain like at the Mare Imbrium landing site?

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

“A large scale wrinkle ridge (~100 km long, 10 km wide) cuts across the area and was formed as tectonic stress caused the volcanic layers to buckle and break along faults. Wrinkle ridges are common on the Moon, Mercury and Mars,” says Robinson.

“The landing site is on a blue mare (higher titanium) thought to be about 3.0 billion years old.”

Older red mare about from 3.5 billion years is only 10 km to the north, he notes.

See our Chang’e-3 color panoramas now featured at NBC News and Space.com

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 news.

Ken Kremer

LRO LROC Wide angle camera (WAC) color (689 nm, 415 nm, 321 nm) overlain on WAC sunset BW image. Note the proximity of the landing site to a contact between red and blue maria.  Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) LROC Wide angle camera (WAC) color (689 nm, 415 nm, 321 nm) overlain on WAC sunset BW image. Note the proximity of the landing site to a contact between red and blue maria. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
LRO spacecraft (top) protected by gray colored blankets is equipped with 7 science instruments located at upper right side of spacecraft. Payload fairing in background protects the spacecraft during launch and ascent. Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA’s LRO spacecraft (top) protected by gray colored blankets is equipped with 7 science instruments located at upper right side of spacecraft. LRO is piggybacked atop NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft. Payload fairing in background protects the spacecraft during launch and ascent on Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer

Yutu rover Suffers Significant Setback at Start of 2nd Lunar Night


China’s
maiden moon rover ‘Yutu’ has just suffered a significant mechanical setback right at the start of her 2nd lunar night, according to an official announcement from Chinese space officials made public this weekend.

The six wheeled Yutu rover, which means ‘Jade Rabbit’, has “experienced a mechanical control abnormality” in a new report by China’s official government newspaper, The People’s Daily.

‘Jade Rabbit’ was traversing southwards from the landing site as the incident occurred just days ago – about six weeks into its planned 3 month moon roving expedition.

However very few details have emerged or been released by the Chinese government about Yutu’s condition or fate.

“Scientists are organizing repairs,” wrote the People’s Daily.

The abnormality occurred due to the “complicated lunar surface environment,” said the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) in a brief statement, without giving further details, according to the paper.

This situation is very serious because the “abnormality” took place just prior to the beginning of the 2nd lunar night and unavoidable ‘dormancy’ for both ‘Jade Rabbit’ and the Chang’e-3 mothership.

So it’s not clear at this time if Chinese space engineers were able to take any concrete actions to rectify the unspecified problem before both spacecraft entered their next two week long night time slumber.

Based on unofficial accounts, it appears that one of the solar panels did not fold back properly over Yutu’s mast after it was lowered to the required horizontal position into a warmed box to shield and protect it from the extremely frigid lunar night time temperatures.

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

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

The now world famous rover entered its second hibernation period at dawn on Saturday, Jan. 25, as the lunar night fell, according to the SASTIND statement.

The mothership “fell asleep” a day earlier on Friday, Jan 24.

Each ship had just completed their 2nd Lunar Day of operations and had apparently been functioning normally and taking planned scientific measurements and imagery.

The research program during Lunar Day 2 included optical telescope observations of the sky, extreme ultraviolent (EUV) observations of the Earth’s plasmasphere, subsurface radar measurements, and spectroscopic measurements with Yutu’s robotic arm.

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.

Likewise, each Lunar night also lasts approximately 14 Earth days.

In order to survive into the next Lunar day, they must each endure the utterly harsh and unforgiving lunar environment when the Moon’s temperatures plunge dramatically to below minus 180 Celsius, or minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit.

So they must enter a sleep mode to conserve energy since there is no sunlight to generate power with the solar arrays during the lunar night.

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

During the nocturnal hiatus they are kept alive by a radioisotopic heat source that keeps their delicate computer and electronics subsystems warmed inside a box below the deck. It must be maintained at a temperature of about minus 40 degrees Celsius to prevent debilitating damage.

In a historic first for China, the Chang’e-3 spacecraft safely touched down on the Moon at Mare Imbrium near the Bay of Rainbows some six weeks 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.

Is it Farewell Forever Yutu ??

We don’t know yet.

And since there is no communication possible during sleep mode, no one will know until the resumption of daylight some two weeks from now – around Feb. 8 to 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. Landscape textured with Chang’e 3 imagery from space and ground. Credit: CNSA/BACC

Whatever happens, China can be proud of their magnificent accomplishment with the Yutu rover and the 1200 kg stationary Change’-3 lander which has reinvigorated lunar surface exploration after a nearly 40 year gap.

And we wish China’s scientists and engineers well !

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.

Meanwhile as we await the fate of China’s Yutu rover trundling across pitted moonscapes, NASA’s Opportunity rover is in the midst of Martian mountaineering at the start of Decade 2 on the Red Planet and younger sister Curiosity is speeding towards the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp.

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

Ken Kremer

China’s Yutu rover trundles across the Moon in Time-lapse Panorama

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 a 360-degree panorama – see below.
Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Story updated
This mosaic was selected as Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) on Feb. 3, 2014
http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.html[/caption]

A new time-lapse photomosaic shows China’s Yutu rover dramatically trundling across the Moon’s stark gray terrain in the first week after she rolled all six wheels onto the desolate lunar plains.

Our complete time-lapse mosaic (see below) shows Yutu at three different positions trekking around the landing site, and gives a real sense of how it is maneuvering around – on the 1st Lunar Day.

The 360-degree panoramic mosaic was created from images captured by the color camera aboard China’s Chang’e-3 lander, the country’s first spacecraft to successfully soft land on the Moon.

The time-lapse mosaic was stitched together by the imaging team of scientists Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo using images just released on a Chinese language website.

We integrated the wide screen panorama with additional images of Yutu taken by the lander as she roved around the right side of the mothership during her 1st Lunar Day – to create the new time-lapse panorama.

To me the moonscape is rather reminiscent of the scenery from NASA’s manned Apollo lunar landing missions which took place over 4 decades ago – from 1969 to 1972.

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

Our time-lapse Yutu mosaic was initially featured at NBC News by Alan Boyle – here.

Here’s the original 360 degree panorama:

1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander. This 1st color panorama from Chang’e-3 lander shows the view all around the landing site after the ‘Yutu’ lunar rover left impressive tracks behind when it initially rolled all six wheels onto the pockmarked and gray lunar terrain on Dec. 15, 2013. Mosaic Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com
1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander. This 1st color panorama from Chang’e-3 lander shows the view all around the landing site after the ‘Yutu’ lunar rover left impressive tracks behind when it initially rolled all six wheels onto the pockmarked and gray lunar terrain on Dec. 15, 2013. Mosaic Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com

The first portrait of Yutu was taken shortly after it first drove off the 1200 kg Chang’e-3 lander on Dec. 15. The last Yutu position shows her heading off to the south and departing the landing site forever.

She’s not ever coming back to see the stationary lander again, according to China’s Chang’e-3 mission team.

Yutu, which translates as ‘Jade Rabbit’, is on her own from now on.

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 panorama. See complete 360 degree landing site 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
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 panorama. See complete 360 degree landing site panorama herein. Chang’e-3 landers extreme ultraviolet (EUV) camera is at right, antenna at left. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com

Chang’e-3 safely touched down on the Moon at Mare Imbrium near the Bay of Rainbows 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.

Here is the initial black and white panoramic version from the Chang’e-3 navigation camera – which we assembled from screenshots taken as it was twirling about in a CCTV news video report.

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

The Chang’e-3 mothership and Yutu rover are now working during their 2nd Lunar Day, having survived the harsh extremes of their 1st Lunar Night when temperatures plummeted to below minus 180 degrees Celsius, or minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit.

They have resumed full operation and are conducting research investigations. Each is equipped with four science instruments.

All the equipment is functioning well except alas for the color camera used to snap the images for the photomosaics herein.

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’s official Xinhua new agency reports that the instruments aboard the lander and rover have each collected a large amount of data about the Moon, Earth and celestial objects.

Scientists have created a star atlas around the constellation Draco and used the ground penetrating radar to survey the moon’s subsurface and soil structure to depths of 10 to 140 meters.

Meanwhile as China’s Yutu rover trundles across pitted moonscapes, NASA’s Opportunity rover is in the midst of Martian mountaineering at the start of Decade 2 on the Red Planet and younger sister Curiosity is speeding towards the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp.

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

Ken Kremer

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. Landscape textured with Chang’e 3 imagery from space and ground. Credit: CNSA/BACC

1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander

1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander
Portion of 1st color panorama from Chang’e-3 lander focuses on the ‘Yutu’ lunar rover and the impressive tracks it left behind after initially rolling all six wheels onto the pockmarked and gray lunar terrain on Dec. 15, 2013. Mosaic Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
See below – the complete panoramic version as well as a 360 degree interactive version
Will humans follow?[/caption]

Chinese space officials have at last released much higher quality versions of the 1st color imagery captured by China’s first spacecraft to soft land on the surface of the Earth’s Moon; Chang’e-3.

For the enjoyment of space enthusiasts worldwide, we have assembled the newly released imagery to create the ‘1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander.’ See above and below two versions in full resolution, as well as an interactive version – showing the fabulous view on the 1st Lunar Day.

The moonscape panorama shows the magnificent desolation of the pockmarked gray lunar plains at the mission’s touchdown site at Mare Imbrium. It is starkly reminiscent of NASA’s manned Apollo lunar landing missions which took place over 4 decades ago – from 1969 to 1972.

And this spectacular view may well be a harbinger of what’s coming next – as China’s leaders consider a manned lunar landing perhaps a decade hence, details here.

See above a cropped portion – focusing on the piggybacked ‘Yutu’ lunar rover and the impressive tracks it left behind after it initially rolled all six wheels onto the surface; and which cut several centimeters deep into the loose lunar regolith on Dec. 15, 2013.

The beautiful imagery snapped by China’s history making Chang’e-3 lunar lander on 17 and 18 December 2013 – during its 1st Lunar day – was released in six separate pieces on the Chinese language version of the Chinanews website, over the weekend.

See below the compete version of the 360 degree panorama stitched together by the imaging team of scientists Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander. This 1st color panorama from Chang’e-3 lander shows the view all around the landing site after the ‘Yutu’ lunar rover left impressive tracks behind when it initially rolled all six wheels onto the pockmarked and gray lunar terrain on Dec. 15, 2013. Mosaic Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com
1st 360 Degree Color Panorama from China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Lander
This 1st color panorama from Chang’e-3 lander shows the moonscape view all around the landing site after the ‘Yutu’ lunar rover left impressive tracks behind when it initially rolled all six wheels onto the pockmarked and gray lunar terrain on Dec. 15, 2013. Mosaic Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com

We have also enhanced the imagery to improve contrast, lighting and uniformity to visibly reveal further details.

For comparison, below is the initial black and white panoramic version seen by the landers navigation camera – which we assembled from screenshots taken as it was twirling about in a CCTV news video report.

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

Alas, one bit of sad news is that it appears the 1200 kg lander’s color camera apparently did not survive the 1st frigid night since it reportedly wasn’t protected by a heater.

For a collection of new and higher quality Chang’e-3 mission photos – including the 1st portraits of the Earth taken from the Moon’s surface in some 40 years – please check my recent article; here.

Check this link – to view a 360 degree interactive version of the first Chang’e-3 color panorama – created by space enthusiast Andrew Bodrov. He has added in a separate image of the Earth snapped by the lander.

China’s action to release higher quality imagery is long overdue and something I have urged the Chinese government to do on several occasions here so that everyone can marvel at the magnitude of China’s momentous space feat.

We applaud the China National Space Administration (CNSA) for this new release and hope they will publish the higher resolution digital versions of all the imagery taken by the Chang’e-3 mothership and the Yutu rover and place everything onto a dedicated mission website – just as NASA does.

Here’s the pair of polar views of the 360 degree lunar landing site panoramas (released last week) – taken by each spacecraft and showing portraits of each 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

China’s history making moon robots – the Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover – are now working during their 2nd Lunar Day. They have resumed full operation – marking a major milestone in the new mission.

It’s remarkable to consider that although they were just awoken last weekend on Jan. 11 and Jan. 12 from the forced slumber of survival during their long frigid 1st lunar night, they are now already half way through Lunar Day 2 – since each day and night period on the Moon lasts two weeks.

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 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.

Meanwhile as China’s Yutu rover trundles across pitted moonscapes, NASA’s Opportunity rover is in the midst of Martian mountaineering at the start of Decade 2 on the Red Planet and younger sister Curiosity is speeding towards the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp.

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

Ken Kremer

Chang’e 3 Lander Beams Back New Lunar Panorama Photos

Little by little we’re getting sharper, clearer pictures from the Chinese Chang’e 3 moon mission. Yesterday the lander beamed back a series of new photos taken with its panoramic camera. Stitched together, they give us a more detailed and colorful look of the rover’s surroundings in northern Mare Imbrium. I’ve ordered the images starting with a nice crisp view of the Yutu rover; from there we turn by degree to the right across the five frames. The final mosaic unfortunately doesn’t have the resolution yet of the other images. Perhaps one will be published soon.

The lander's solar panels stand out in the foreground with a smattering of small craters nearby. Credit: Chinanews.com
The lander’s solar panels stand out in the foreground with a smattering of small craters nearby. Credit: Chinanews.com
Right of the rover we see more panels and a radio communications dish. Credit: Chinanews.com
Right of the rover we see more panels and a radio communications dish. Credit: Chinanews.com
A larger crater surrounded by what appears to be excavated impact ejecta is visible near the horizon at upper right. Credit: Chinanews.com
A larger crater surrounded by what appears to be excavated impact ejecta is visible near the horizon at upper right. Credit: Chinanews.com
Yutu's tracks stand out in this final image. Credit: Chinanews.com
Yutu’s tracks and another crater with ejecta stand out in this final image. Credit: Chinanews.com

 

Complete, if small, panorama stitched from the single images. Credit: Chinanews.com
Complete, if small, panorama stitched from the single images. Credit: Chinanews.com

 

One thing that stands out to my eye when looking at the photos is the brown color of the lunar surface soil or regolith. Color images of the moon’s surface by the Apollo astronauts along with  their verbal descriptions indicate a uniform gray color punctuated in rare spots by patches of more colorful soils.

Apollo 15 astronauts salutes next to the American flag in 1971. The moon's regolith or soil appears a variety of shades of gray. Credit: NASA
Apollo 15 astronauts salutes next to the American flag in 1971. The moon’s regolith or soil appears a variety of shades of gray. Credit: NASA

The famous orange soil scooped up by Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan comes to mind. Because Apollo visited six different moonscapes – all essentially gray – it makes me wonder if the color balance in the Chinese images might be off. Or did Chang’e 3 just happen to land on browner soils?

The orange soil found by Apollo 17 astronauts really stands out against a uniform gray moonscape. Credit: NASA
The orange soil found by Apollo 17 astronauts really stands out against a uniform gray moonscape. Credit: NASA

 

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 Historic Moon Robot Duo Awaken from 1st Long Frigid Night and Resume Science Operations

Chinese Moon Robots Wake up
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
Story updated[/caption]

Chinese Moon Robots Wake up!

China’s history making moon robots – the Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover – have just awoken from the forced slumber of survival during their first, long frigid lunar night and have now resumed full operations – marking a major milestone in the mission.

This landmark achievement offers a realistic prognosis that the best is yet to come for this new dynamic duo of robots dispatched from Earth!

The stationary lander and six wheeled rover were autonomously revived from their dormant mode this weekend.

Both were then placed back into full working science mode in response to commands issued by Chinese space engineers at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC), according to CCTV, China’s official government broadcast network.

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

Yutu woke up first on Saturday, Jan. 11, at 5:09 a.m. Beijing local time.

The Chang’e-3 lander was awoken on Sunday, Jan. 12, at 8:21 a.m. Beijing local time, according to a BACC statement.

Both vehicles depend on their life giving solar panels to produce power in order to function and accomplish their scientific tasks.

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

During the nocturnal hiatus they were kept alive by a radioisotopic heat source that kept their delicate computer and electronics subsystems warmed inside a box below the deck. It was maintained at a temperature of about minus 40 degrees Celsius to prevent debilitating damage

The simple fact that both spacecraft survived half a month through the extremely harsh lunar night time environment when temperatures plunged to below minus 180 degrees Celsius, or minus 292 degrees Fahrenheit, and then restarted intact, proves the resiliency and robustness of China’s space technology.

“During the lunar night, the lander and the rover were in a power-off condition and the communication with Earth was also cut off,” said Zhou Jianliang, chief engineer of the BACC, to CCTV.

The "Yutu" rover and the Chang’e-3 lander began functioning again on Jan 11 & 12, 2014 in this artists concept. Both had become dormant to ride out the harsh conditions on the moon. Credit: CNSA/CCTV
The “Yutu” rover and the Chang’e-3 lander began functioning again on Jan 11 & 12, 2014 in this artists concept. Both had become dormant to ride out the harsh conditions on the moon. Credit: CNSA/CCTV

“When the night ends, they will be started up with the power provided by sunlight and resume operation and communication according to preset programs,” Zhou said.

As night fell on the Earth’s Moon at Christmas time 2013, Yutu and the mother ship lander both entered a state of hibernation – determined to survive the utterly harsh lunar darkness upon the magnificently desolate gray plains.

The mother ship began her nap first on Christmas Day, Dec. 25. Yutu went to sleep on Dec. 26 obeying commands sent by mission control at BACC, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND).

Just prior to hibernating, the lander snapped the first image of the Earth taken from the Moon’s surface in some four decades. See below.

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
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

Now with the dawn of daylight the solar panels were unfurled and the instruments activated on both robots.

Yutu has already resumed roving towards pristine, unexplored lunar terrain surrounding the touchdown zone at Mare Imbrium, nearby the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region.

After driving in a semicircular path around the right side of the stationary lander, and snapping portraits of one another at 5 preselected locations, Yutu parked some 40 meters south of the mother ship – after touchdown and prior to the start of lunar night.

Yutu, which translates as ‘Jade Rabbit’, is departing the landing zone forever, trekking southwards for surface investigations expected to last at least 3 months – and perhaps longer depending on its robustness in the unforgiving space environment.

The Chang’e-3 lander should survive at least a year.

“They will begin to conduct scientific explorations of the geography and geomorphology of the landing spot and nearby areas, and materials like minerals and elements there,” noted Wu Weiren, chief designer of China Lunar Probe Program.

“We will also explore areas 30 meters and 100 meters beneath the lunar soil. The exploration will continue longer than we planned, because all the instruments and equipments are working very well.”

‘Jade Rabbit’ and the lander will use their suites of science instruments including cameras, telescopes, spectrometers and ground penetrating radar to survey the moon’s geological structure and composition to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by potential future Chinese astronauts.

The robotic pair safely soft landed on the Moon on Dec. 14 at Mare Imbrium, located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. Seven hour later on Dec. 15, Yutu rolled all 6 wheels onto the moon’s surface, leaving tracks behind as it cut into the loose regolith.

Presumably they will continue exploring for about the next 14 days – the entire time span of their 2nd Lunar Day, unless they need to take a break from the high daylight temperatures.

Thereafter Yutu and Chang’e-3 will function in alternating cycles of 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off for the duration of their independent working lifetimes.

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