China’s Maiden Lunar Rover ‘Yutu’ Rolls 6 Wheels onto the Moon – Photo and Video Gallery

China’s first lunar rover separates from Chang’e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua/post processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Updated- See below Photo Gallery of Yutu’s descent to lunar surface on Dec. 15, 2013[/caption]

China’s first ever lunar rover rolled majestically onto the Moon’s soil on Sunday, Dec. 15, barely seven hours after the Chang’e-3 mothership touched down atop the lava filled plains of the Bay of Rainbows.

Check out the gallery of stunning photos and videos herein from China’s newest space spectacular atop stark lunar terrain.

The six wheeled ‘Yutu’, or Jade Rabbit, rover drove straight off a pair of ramps at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt.

China's first lunar rover separates from Chang'e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: CCTV
China’s first lunar rover separates from Chang’e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: CCTV

The stunning feat was broadcast on China’s state run CCTV using images transmitted to Earth from cameras mounted on the Chang’e-3 lander and aimed directly at the rear of the departing moon buggy.

Watch this YouTube video from CCTV showing the separation of ‘Yutu’ from the lander:

The scene was reminiscent of NASA’s Mars Sojourner rover driving of the Mars Pathfinder lander back in 1997.

Chinese space engineers based at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) carefully extended a pair of ramps out from the lander in a complex process, drove Yutu onto the ramps and then gently lowered them onto the moon’s soil.

China’s Change’-3 mission had just safely soft landed on the Moon hours only earlier on Saturday, Dec. 14 at 9:11 p.m. Beijing time, 8:11 EST at the Sinus Iridum region, or Bay of Rainbows.

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

A video grab shows China's first moon rover, Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, separating from Chang'e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. The six-wheeled rover separated from the lander early on Sunday, several hours after the Chang'e-3 probe soft-landed on the lunar surface.  Credit: Xinhua
A video grab shows China’s first moon rover, Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, separating from Chang’e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. The six-wheeled rover separated from the lander early on Sunday, several hours after the Chang’e-3 probe soft-landed on the lunar surface. Credit: Xinhua

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

Read my detailed account of the Chang’e-3 landing on Dec. 14 – here.

1st post landing image transmitted from the Moon’s surface by China’s Chang’e-3 lunar lander on Dec. 14, 2013. Credit: CCTV/post processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
1st post landing image transmitted from the Moon’s surface by China’s Chang’e-3 lunar lander on Dec. 14, 2013. Credit: CCTV/post processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Watch this YouTube video compilation of CCTV’s Dec. 14 landing coverage:

Over 4600 images have already been transmitted by Chang’e-3 in less than a day on the Moon.

Tomorrow, the 120 kg Yutu rover will begin driving in a circle around the 1200 kg lander.

And the pair of lunar explorers will snap eagerly awaited portraits of one another!

The rover and lander are equipped with 8 science instruments 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, according to Ouyang Ziyuan, senior advisor of China’s lunar probe project, in an interview on CCTV.

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

Yutu moves towards drive off ramp still atop the Chang’e-3 lander, shown in this screen shot from early Dec. 15, 2013.  Credit: CCTV
Yutu moves towards drive off ramp still atop the Chang’e-3 lander, shown in this screen shot from early Dec. 15, 2013. Credit: CCTV
Yutu atop the transfer ramp to lunar surface. Credit: CCTV
Yutu atop the transfer ramp to lunar surface. Credit: CCTV
Yutu descends down the transfer ramp to lunar surface. Credit: CCTV
Yutu descends down the transfer ramp to lunar surface. Credit: CCTV
Image shows the trajectory of the lunar probe Chang'e-3 approaching the landing site  on Dec. 14.
Image shows the trajectory of the lunar probe Chang’e-3 approaching the landing site on Dec. 14.
China's first lunar rover separates from Chang'e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua
China’s first lunar rover separates from Chang’e-3 moon lander early Dec. 15, 2013. Screenshot taken from the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. Credit: Xinhua

China Scores Historic Success as Chang’e-3 Rover Lands on the Moon Today

Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows a picture of the moon surface taken by the on-board camera of lunar probe Chang’e-3 on the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing. This marks the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body. Credit: Xinhua/CCTV
Story updated[/caption]

China scored a stunning, history making success with the successful touchdown of the ambitious Chang’e-3 probe with the ‘Yutu’ rover on the surface of the Moon today, Dec. 14, on the country’s first ever attempt to conduct a landing on an extraterrestrial body.

The dramatic Chang’e-3 soft landing on the lava filled plains of the Bay of Rainbows occurred at about 8:11 am EST, 9:11 p.m. Beijing local time, 1311 GMT today.

The monumental feat is the first landing on the Moon by any entity in nearly four decades. It was broadcast live on CCTV, China’s state run television network.

Note: Read my related new story with a photo gallery of Yutu’s 6 wheels rolling onto lunar soil – here

This maiden Chinese moon landing marks a milestone achievement for China and clearly demonstrates the country’s technological prowess.

chang'e-3 approach 1A tidal wave of high fives was unleashed by the huge teams of Chinese space engineers teams controlling the flight from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC).

There was also a huge sense of relief from the nail biting tension upon confirmation of the successful soft landing following many years of hard work and intense planning.

The Chang’e-3 mission entails the first soft landing on the Moon by anyone since the Soviet Union’s unmanned Luna 24 sample return vehicle touched down back in 1976.

Artists concept of the rocket assisted landing of China’s lunar probe Chang'e-3.
Artists concept of the rocket assisted landing of China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3.

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

China’s space vision also stands in total contrast to the utter lack of vision emanating from so called political leaders in Washington, DC who stymie NASA and US science at every opportunity!

‘Yutu’ could very well serve as a forerunner for testing the key technologies required for a Chinese manned lunar landing in the next decade.

In one of its first acts from the surface, the landers life giving solar panels were deployed as planned within minutes of touchdown

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

The Chang’e-3 lander transmitted its first images of the moon in real time during its approach to the lunar surface during the final stages of the ongoing landing operation carried live by CCTV.

A total of 59 images were received instead of the 10 expected, said a CCTV commentator.

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 made a rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface today by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area on the Bay of Rainbows.

The powered descent was autonomous and took about 12 minutes.

The variable thrust engine can continuously vary its thrust power between 1,500 to 7,500 newtons. It was the biggest ever used by China in space said a commentator on CCTV.

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

The descent was preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not from the ground.

A descent camera was mounted on the lander’s belly

The 1200 kg lander is equipped with unprecedented terrain recognition equipment and software to hover above the landing site and confirm it was safe. This enabled the craft 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.

The descent engine fired until the lander was about hovering 100 meters above the lunar surface.

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

The solar panels soon unfurled. They are the most efficient Chinese solar panels available, said a CCTV commentator.

The Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum region, is located in the upper left portion of the moon as seen from Earth. You can see the landing site with your own eyes.

It was imaged in high resolution by China’s prior lunar mission – the Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter – and is shown in graphics herein.

The Yutu rover is also unfurling its solar panels and mast today.

Yutu, which translates as Jade Rabbit, stands 150 centimeters high, or nearly 5 feet – human height.

It weighs approximately 120 kilograms and sports a robotic arm equipped with advanced science instruments.

On Sunday, the six-wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover with a rocker bogie suspension similar to NASA’s Mars rovers 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 for at least three months.

In what promises to be a space spectacular, the lander and rover are expected to photograph one another soon after Yutu rolls onto the Bay of Rainbows.

They will work independently.

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, according to Ouyang Ziyuan, senior advisor of China’s lunar probe project, in an interview on CCTV.

The Chang’e-3 lander is powered by a combination of solar arrays and a nuclear battery said CCTV, in order to survive the two week long lunar nights.

Chinese space officials expect the lander will function a minimum of 1 year.

ESA’s network of tracking stations are providing crucial support to China for Chang’e-3 from launch to landing.

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 lunar probe Chang'e-3 is expected to land on Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows) of the moon in mid-December 2013. Credit: Xinhua
China’s lunar probe Chang’e-3 landed on Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows) of the moon on 14 December 2013. Credit: Xinhua

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

Spectacular Liftoff Thrusts China’s First Rover ‘Yutu’ to the Moon

Liftoff of China’s first ever lunar rover on Dec. 2 local Beijing time from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China. Credit: CCTV
Story updated
See stunning launch video and rover deployment animation below[/caption]

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – China successfully launched its first ever lunar rover bound for the Moon’s surface aboard a Long March rocket today 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.

The spectacular night time blastoff of the Long March-3B carrier rocket with the ‘Yutu’ rover was carried live on China’s state run CCTV enabling viewers worldwide to watch the dramatic proceedings as they occurred in real time – including fantastic imagery of booster jettison, spacecraft separation, thruster firings and exquisite views of Earth from cameras aboard the booster.

See the stunning launch video below.

Video caption: China’s Chang’e-3 Lunar Probe Launch on Dec 2, 2013. Credit: CCTV

The entire flight sequence proceeded flawlessly and placed the combined Chang’e 3 lunar landing vehicle and ‘Yutu’ rover on the desired earth-moon transfer orbit following spacecraft separation and unfurling of the life giving solar panels and landing legs, announced Zhang Zhenzhong, director of the Xichang center.

“The Chang’e probe is on its way to the moon, of course, is a symbol of China’s national prowess,” said Zhang Zhenzhong through a translator during the live CCTV broadcast. “Of course, it’s a symbol of China’s national power and prowess.”

The three stage 55 meter (185 foot) tall Long March-3B carrier rocket was uniquely equipped with a quartet of strap on liquid fueled boosters to provide the additional liftoff thrust required for the four day journey to Earth’s Moon.

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

The name for the ‘Yutu’ rover – which translates as ‘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 Chang’e 3 lander will fire thrusters to enter lunar orbit on Dec. 6.

It is due to make a powered descent to the lunar surface on Dec. 14, firing thrusters at an altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for touchdown in a preselected area called the Bay of Rainbows or Sinus Iridum region.

Artists concept of China’s ‘Yutu’ rover traversing the lunar surface. Credit: CCTV
Artists concept of China’s ‘Yutu’ rover traversing the lunar surface. Credit: CCTV

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.

‘Yutu’ is sitting atop the 4 legged landing probe during the launch and voyage to the Moon.

A complex maneuver will be used to deploy the six-wheeled ‘Jade Rabbit’ rover. It will be lowered in stages to the moon’s surface and then drive off a pair of landing ramps to explore the moon’s terrain.

Watch this short CCTV news report with a cool animation showing how the ‘Yutu’ rover reaches the lunar surface.

‘Jade Rabbit’ 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.

One highly anticipated highlight will be when the lander and deployed Jade Rabbit rover image each other on the surface.

The rover is expected to continue operating for at least three months.

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

It 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 around 2020.

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 continuing SpaceX, 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

NASA’s LADEE Probe Starts Science Study of Thin Lunar Atmosphere and Dusty Mystery

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) has descended to its planned low altitude orbit and begun capturing science data on its ground breaking mission to study the Moon’s ultra tenuous atmosphere and dust using a spacecraft based on a revolutionary new design aimed at speeding development and cutting costs.

LADEE set sail for Earth’s nearest neighbor during a spectacular night time launch atop the maiden flight of an Air Force Minotaur V rocket on Sept. 6 from NASA’s Wallops Island launch facility on Virginia’s Eastern shore.

The flawless launch thrilled spectators up and down virtually the entire US East coast region and yielded many memorable snapshots.

Following a month long voyage and three and a half long looping orbits of the Earth, LADEE successfully fired its main engine for 4 minutes and 12 seconds on Oct. 6 and successfully entered lunar orbit, Dawn McIntosh, LADEE deputy project manager at NASA Ames Research Center, told Universe Today in an exclusive interview.

A series of engine firings over the past month gradually circularized and lowered LADEE into its final science orbit around our Moon while engineers checked out the spacecraft during the commissioning phase of the mission.

The do or die initial Lunar Orbit Insertion burn (LOI-1) allowed LADEE to be captured into a highly elliptical, equatorial lunar orbit, said McIntosh.

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. 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. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Two additional LOI burns on Oct. 6 and Oct 9 lowered LADEE to an approximately 4 hour orbit with a periapsis altitude of 234 Kilometers (km) and apoapsis altitude of 250 km” McIntosh told me.

The trio of LOI main engine firings used up most of LADEE’s precious on board fuel.

“LADEE launched with 134.5 kilograms (kg) of fuel. Post LOI-3, 80% of our fuel has been consumed,” said McIntosh.

“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.

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

Its flying at an extremely low altitude ranging from merely eight to 37 miles (12-60 kilometers) above the moon’s surface.

By circling in this very low altitude equatorial orbit, the washing machine sized probe will make frequent passes crossing from lunar day to lunar night enabling it to precisely measure changes and processes occurring within the moon’s tenuous atmosphere while simultaneously sniffing for uplifted lunar dust in the lunar sky.

The remaining fuel will be used to maintain LADEE’s orbit during the approximately 100 day long science mission. The mission length is dictated by the residual fuel available for thruster firings.

LADEE Science Instrument locations
LADEE Science Instrument locations

The purpose of LADEE is to collect data that will inform scientists in unprecedented detail about the ultra thin lunar atmosphere, environmental influences on lunar dust and conditions near the surface. In turn this will lead to a better understanding of other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond.

“A thorough understanding of the characteristics of our lunar neighbor will help researchers understand other small bodies in the solar system, such as asteroids, Mercury, and the moons of outer planets,” said Sarah Noble, LADEE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

By studying the raised 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 $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 Director Worden told Universe Today. “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.”

LADEE_Poster_01

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

LADEE arrived at the Moon last month in the midst of the US government shutdown – which negatively impacted a host of other NASA missions. Only a ‘skeleton crew’ was available.

“All burns went super well,” Worden told me. And he is extremely proud of the entire team of “dedicated” professional men and women who made it possible during the shutdown.

“It says a lot about our people’s dedication and capability when a skeleton crew’ can get a new spacecraft into lunar orbit and fully commissioned in the face of a shutdown!” Worden said to Universe Today.

Now the real science begins for LADEE and the team.

Stay tuned here for continuing LADEE news

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about LADEE, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Orion and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Nov 22-25: “SpaceX launch, MAVEN Mars Launch and Curiosity Explores Mars, Orion and NASA’s Future”, Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, 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

The Challenges of Lasers in Space

Artist concept of a solar sail demonstration mission that will use lasers for navigation. Credit: NASA.

Since the beginning of the space age, radio waves have been used for communication with spacecraft. But last month, NASA’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) made history by using a pulsed laser beam to transmit data over the 385,000 km (239,000 miles) between the Moon and Earth at a record-breaking download rate of 622 megabits per second (Mbps). This was NASA’s first system for two-way communication using a laser instead of radio waves. In our previous article today, we described how NASA will test out the Optical PAyload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) on the International Space Station to demonstrate how videos can be beamed to Earth via laser beam.

What are the challenges in testing out an entirely new way of doing communications and other systems like navigation using lasers in space?

Don Cornwell, LLCD manager, discusses the challenges and successes they’ve had so far in this new video:

“The big change is the ability to do it by light, because the data rates that we’ve now done are just the opening shot, so to speak,” Cornwell said. “Radio communications systems have served us very well for the past 50 years but they are starting to run out of bandwidth, so in other words because of the frequency they use you can only modulate a certain portion of that frequencies and unless you move to higher frequencies – and light is a higher frequency than radio waves– you can’t squeeze a lot more bandwidth out, but the light systems in space, … we’ve now opened up a whole new field where we’re getting started , but the sky’s the limit regarding how much we can do there.”

Using lasers will allow for increased bandwidth for image resolution and 3-D video transmission from deep space, as well as allowing for tele-operation for long distances, such as from the Earth to the Moon.

LLCD is a short-duration experiment and the precursor to NASA’s long-duration demonstration, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). LCRD is a part of the agency’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which is working to develop crosscutting technology capable of operating in the rigors of space. It is scheduled to launch in 2017.

Meanwhile, NASA has three other laser technology demonstration missions in the offing, likely launching in 2015 and 2016. One is a solar sail demonstration will enable propellantless laser in-space navigation for missions such as advanced geostorm warning, economic orbital debris removal, and deep space exploration.

Skeleton Crew gets LADEE in Orbit, Checked Out and Fires Revolutionary Laser During Gov’t Shutdown

NASA’s new LADEE spacecraft successfully entered lunar orbit, is operating beautifully and has begun shooting its radical laser communications experiment despite having to accomplish a series of absolutely critical do-or-die orbital insertion engine firings with a “skeleton crew ” – all this amidst the NASA and US government shutdown, NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden told Universe Today in a LADEE mission exclusive.

During the two and a half week long NASA shutdown, engineers had to fire LADEE’s maneuvering thrusters three times over six days – first to brake into elliptical orbit about the Moon and then lower it significantly and safely into a circular commissioning orbit.

“All burns went super well,” Ames Center Director Worden told me exclusivly. And he is extremely proud of the entire team of “dedicated” professional men and women who made it possible during the shutdown.

“It says a lot about our people’s dedication and capability when a skeleton crew can get a new spacecraft into lunar orbit and fully commissioned in the face of a shutdown!” Worden said to Universe Today.

“I’m really happy that everyone’s back.”

After achieving orbit, a pair of additional engine burns reduced LADEE’s altitude and period into its initial commissioning orbit and teams began the month long activation and instrument checkout phase.

“We are at the commissioning orbit of 250 km,” said Worden.

And to top all that off, LADEE’s quartet of science instruments are checked out and the ground – breaking laser communications experiment that will bring about a quantum leap in transmitting space science data has already begun its work!

“All instruments are fully checked out with covers deployed.”

“We’ve begun the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) tests and its working very well,” Worden explained.

NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter will firing its main engine on Oct. 6 to enter lunar orbit in the midst of the US government shutdown. Credit: NASA
NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter fired its main engine on Oct. 6 to enter lunar orbit in the midst of the US government shutdown. Credit: NASA

And that’s the whole point of the LADEE mission in the first place.

97% of NASA’s employees were furloughed during the utterly chaotic and wasteful partial shutdown of the US government that lasted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 17 and also temporarily threatened the upcoming launch of NASA’s next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter.

However, orbital mechanics follows the natural laws of the Universe, continues unabated and waits for no one in Washington, D.C.

NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno orbiter also flew by Earth amidst the DC shutdown showdown on Oct. 9 for a similarly critical do-or-die gravity assisted speed boost and trajectory targeting maneuver.

The stakes were extremely high for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission because the spacecraft was on course for the Moon and absolutely had to ignite its main engine on the Sunday morning of Oct. 6.

There were no second chances. If anything failed, LADEE would simply sail past the Moon with no hope of returning later.

So, mission controllers at NASA Ames commanded LADEE to ignite its main engine and enter lunar orbit on Oct. 6 following the spectacular Sept. 6 night launch from NASA’s Wallops Island spaceport in Virginia.

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

The approximately four minute long burn know as Lunar Orbit Insertion burn 1 (LOI-1) began with LADEE’s arrival at the Moon following three and a half long looping orbits of the Earth.

LOI-1 changed the spacecrafts velocity by 329.8 meters/sec so that the couch sized probe could be captured by the Moon’s gravity and be placed into a 24 hour polar elliptical orbit.

The LOI-2 maneuver on Oct. 9 put LADEE into a 4-hour elliptic lunar orbit. The third and final LOI-3 burn occurred on Oct. 12, and put the spacecraft into the 2-hour commissioning orbit (roughly 235 Km x 250 Km), according to a NASA statement.

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

“LADEE is the first NASA mission with a dedicated laser communications experiment,” said Don Cornwell, mission manager for the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, during an interview with Universe Today at the LADEE launch.

“With the LLCD experiment, we’ll use laser communications to demonstrate at least six times more data rate from the moon than what we can do with a radio system with half the weight and 25 percent less power,” said Cornwell.

The LADEE satellite in lunar orbit.   The revolutionary modular science probe is equipped with a Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) that will attempt to show two-way laser communication beyond Earth is possible, expanding the possibility of transmitting huge amounts of data. This new ability could one day allow for 3-D High Definition video transmissions in deep space to become routine.  Credit: NASA
The LADEE satellite in lunar orbit. The revolutionary modular science probe is equipped with a Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) that will attempt to show two-way laser communication beyond Earth is possible, expanding the possibility of transmitting huge amounts of data. This new ability could one day allow for 3-D High Definition video transmissions in deep space to become routine. Credit: NASA

The LLCD will be operated for about 30 days during the time of the commissioning orbit period.

The purpose of LADEE is to collect data that will inform scientists in unprecedented detail about the ultra thin lunar atmosphere, environmental influences on lunar dust and conditions near the surface. In turn this will lead to a better understanding of other planetary bodies in our solar system and beyond.

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 Director Worden told Universe Today. “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.”

Stay tuned here for continuing LADEE news

Ken Kremer

LADEE_Poster_01

LADEE Successfully Enters Lunar Orbit on Oct. 6 Amidst Government Shutdown

NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter will fire its main engine on Oct. 6 to enter lunar orbit in the midst of the US government shutdown. Credit: NASA
See the orbit insertion animation below[/caption]

Update Oct 6: LADEE fired its main engine this morning (Oct. 6) at 6:57 a.m. EDT and successfully achieved lunar orbit. Headline/story revised.

NASA’s trailblazing LADEE lunar spacecraft is set to ignite its main engine and enter lunar orbit on Sunday morning, Oct. 6 – if all goes well – following the spectacular Sept. 6 night launch from NASA’s Virginia spaceport.

And in a happenstance no one could have foreseen, the critical engine firing comes smack in the midst of the political chaos reigning in Washington D.C. that has shut down the US government, furloughed 97% of NASA’s employees, and temporarily threatened the upcoming launch of NASA’s next mission to Mars – the MAVEN orbiter.

However, orbital mechanics waits for no one!

A source indicated that LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) mission operations were continuing leading up to the engine burn.

But there will be virtually a complete news blackout and little public information released due to the legal requirements of the shutdown.

NASA websites, which are amongst the most heavily trafficked, as well as NASA TV have been shuttered during the shutdown and the press office is likewise furloughed.

So it was do or die for LADEE with the four minute long braking thruster firing set to start on Oct. 6 at 6:57 a.m. EDT (10:57 UTC), so that the couch sized spacecraft is captured by the Moon’s gravity.

Fortunately, LADEE was deemed “essential” and a small team of engineers is working right now at mission control at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

If the had burn failed, LADEE will swing by the moon with no hope of returning. And this is being accomplished with a skeleton crew thanks to the government shutdown.

Here’s a video animation of orbital capture at the moon:


Video caption: This video shows the LADEE lunar orbit capture scheduled to take place at 10:57 UTC on 6 Oct. 2013. The main view is an Earth centered perspective showing the effect of the Moon’s gravity on the orbit and then how a Lunar orbit looks from the Earth. The inset view shows the same trajectory from the perspective of the Moon.

Dubbed LOI-1 (Lunar Orbit Insertion burn 1),it is designed to begin with LADEE’s arrival at the Moon after three and a half orbits of the Earth. It will change the spacecrafts velocity by 329.8 meters/sec.

LOI-1 is the first of three main engine maneuvers and will place LADEE into a 24 hour retrograde orbit, with a periselene altitude of 590 km (369 mi).

LOI-2 follows on Oct. 9 to place LADEE into a 4 hour orbit with a 250 km (156 mi) periselene altitude.

Finally LOI-3 on Oct. 12 places LADEE into a roughly circular 250 km (156 mi) orbit that initiates a 30 day commissioning phase as well as experiments using the on-board Lunar Laser Communications Experiment (LLCD) before the start of the missions science phase.

LADEE thundered to space atop the maiden launch of the five stage Minotaur V rocket on Sept. 6, blazing a spectacular trail to orbit from a beachside launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

This magnificent view of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter launched on Friday night Sept 6, on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from Virginia was captured by space photographer Ben Cooper perched atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launchphotography.com
This magnificent view of NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiter launched on Friday night Sept 6, on the maiden flight of the Minotaur V rocket from Virginia was captured by space photographer Ben Cooper perched atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. Credit: Ben Cooper/Launchphotography.com

The blastoff was easily visible to tens of millions of thrilled spectators up and down the eastern seaboard stretching from Maine to the Carolinas as a result of crystal clear skies and the night time liftoff.

The LADEE liftoff at 11:27 p.m. EDT marked the first space probe of any kind ever launched beyond Earth orbit from NASA Wallops, as well as being the first planetary science mission ever launched from Wallops.

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

Eventually the spacecraft will fly in a very low equatorial science orbit of about 50 kilometers (31 mi) altitude above the moon that will require considerable fuel to maintain. The science mission duration is approximately 100 days, limited by the amount of maneuvering fuel.

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

It is equipped with a trio of science instruments whose purpose is to collect data that will inform scientists in unprecedented detail about the ultra thin lunar atmosphere, environmental influences on lunar dust and conditions near the surface.

The goal of the $280 Million mission is to gain a thorough understanding of long-standing unknowns about the tenuous atmosphere, dust and surface interactions that will help scientists understand other planetary bodies as well.

The 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 Director Pete Worden told Universe Today 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.”

Stay tuned here for continuing LADEE news.

Ken Kremer

…………….

Learn more about LADEE, MAVEN, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Cygnus, Antares, SpaceX, Orion, the Gov’t shutdown and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Oct 8: “NASA’s Historic LADEE Lunar & Antares/Cygnus ISS Rocket Launches from Virginia”& “Curiosity and MAVEN updates”; Princeton University, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton (AAAP), Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

LADEE_Poster_01

Weekly Space Hangout – September 13, 2013: Voyager is Out, LADEE Launches (a Frog), Asteroid 324 Bamberga

Once again, we have gathered together the forces of space journalism to report on the big news stories of the week. And there were lots of big stories indeed, with the launch of NASA’s LADEE mission to the Moon, and the awesome fact that Voyager 1 has totally left the Solar System.

Host: Fraser Cain

Journalists: Amy Shira Teitel, Nicole Gugliucci, Matthew Francis, David Dickinson, Nancy Atkinson

Frog Launches with LADEE
LADEE Launch Trajectory
Asteroid 334’s Close Approach
Voyager Has Left the Heliosphere
New Comet Lovejoy Discovered
Lots of Globular Clusters

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12 pm Pacific / 3 pm Eastern as a live Google+ Hangout on Air. You can watch the show from right here on Universe Today, or on our YouTube channel.