Here’s What it Looks Like When a Refrigerator Hits the Moon

Ever wonder what your refrigerator’s impacting at the speed of a tank artillery shell would do to the Moon? The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (LRO) primary camera has provided an image of just such an event when it located the impact site of another NASA spacecraft, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). The fridge-sized LADEE spacecraft completed its final Lunar orbit on April 18, 2014, and then crashed into the far side of the Moon. LADEE ground controllers were pretty certain where it crashed but no orbiter had found it until now. With billions of craters across the lunar surface, finding a fresh crater is a daunting task, but a new method of searching for fresh craters is what found LADEE.

The primary purpose of the LADEE mission was to search for lunar dust in the exceedingly thin atmosphere of the Moon. NASA Apollo astronauts had taken notes and drawings of incredible spires and rays of apparent dust above the horizon of the Moon as they were in orbit. To this day it remains a mystery although LADEE researchers are still working their data to find out more.

The LRO spacecraft has been in lunar orbit since 2007. With the LROC Narrow Angle Camera, LRO has the ability to resolve objects less than 2 feet across, and it was likely just a matter of finding time to snap and to search photos for a tiny impact crater.

However, the LROC team recently developed a new algorithm in software to search for fresh craters. Having a good idea where to begin the search, they decided to search for LADEE and quickly found it. The LROC team said the impact site is “about half a mile (780 meters) from the Sundman V crater rim with an altitude of about 8,497 feet (2,590 meters) and was only about two tenths of a mile (300 meters) north of the location mission controllers predicted based on tracking data.” Sundman Crater is about 200 km (125 miles) from a larger crater named Einstein.

A Google Earth map display of the Moon shows the area of the western limb and the offset of the LADEE impact site relative to the crater Einstein. (Photo Credit: Google, Ilus. T. Reyes)
A Google Earth map display of the Moon shows the area of the western limb and the offset of the LADEE impact site relative to the crater Einstein. The Moon’s limbs are zones rather than a distinct line because of its libration. (Photo Credit: Google, Illus. T. Reyes)

The LADEE impact site is within 300 meters of the location estimated by the LADEE team. The ground control team at Ames Research Center knew the location very well within just hours after the time of the planned impact. They had to know LADEE’s location in orbit with split-second accuracy and also know very accurately the altitude of the terrain LADEE was skimming over. LADEE was traveling at 1699 meters per second (3,800 mph, 5,574 feet/sec) upon impact.

But still, finding something as small as this crater can be difficult.

Looking at these images, the scale of lunar morphology is very deceiving. Craters that are 10 meters in diameter can be mistaken for 100 meter or even 1000 meters. The first image and third images (below) in this article are showing only a small portion of the external slope of the eastern rim of Sundman V, the satellite crater to the southeast of crater Sundman. Sundman V is 19,000 meters in diameter (19 km, 11.8 miles) whereas the first image is only 223 meters across.

The following image, which is the ratioing of “before” and “after” impact images by LROC, clearly reveals the impact scar from LADEE. LADEE’s crater is only approximately 10 feet in diameter (3 m) with the ejecta fanning out 200 meters to the west by northwest. LADEE was traveling westward across the face of the Moon that we see from Earth, reached the western limb and finally encountered Sundman.

A high resolution LROC image of the LADEE impact site on the eastern rim of Sundman V crater. The image was created by ratioing two images, one taken before the impact and another afterwards. The bright area highlights what has changed between the time of the two images, specifically the impact point and the ejecta. Image (Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University)
A high resolution LROC image of the LADEE impact site on the eastern rim of Sundman V crater. The image was created by ratioing two images, one taken before the impact and another afterwards. The bright area highlights what has changed between the time of the two images, specifically the impact point and the ejecta. Full resolution of the image (click) is 1 pixel per meter [1000 m on a side]. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University)
In the third image of this article (above), only a 1000 meter square view of the outer slope of Sundman V’s eastern rim is seen. Rather than take the difference between the two images, which is essentially what your eye-brain does with an image pair, LROC engineers take the ratio which effectively raises the contrast dramatically. Sundman V crater is on the far side of the Moon but very near the limb. At times, due to lunar libration, this site can be seen from the Earth. In the Lunar Orbiter image, below, Sundman and satellites J & V are marked. The red circle in the image below is the area in which LROC’s high resolution images reside. Furthermore, the famous Arizona meteor crater east of Flagstaff would also easily fit inside the circle.

This Lunar Orbiter image shows the Sundman craters. The high resolution LROC images of the LADE impact site easily fit within the red circle on Sundman V eastern rim. (Photo Credit: NASA)
This Lunar Orbiter image shows the Sundman craters. The high resolution LROC images of the LADEE impact site easily fit within the red circle (2 km dia.) on “Sundman V” eastern rim. (Photo Credit: NASA, Illus. T.Reyes)

The discovery so close to the predicted impact site confirmed how accurately the LADEE team could model the chaotic orbits around the Moon – at least during short intervals of time. Gravitationally, the Moon is truly like Swiss cheese. The effects of upwelling magma during its creation, the effects of the Earth’s tidal forces, and all the billions of asteroid impacts created a very chaotic gravitational field. Where the lunar surface is higher or more dense, gravity is stronger and vice-versa. LADEE struggled to maintain an orbit that would not run into the Moon. Without a constant vigil by Ames engineers, LADEE’s orbit would be shifted and rotated relative to the Moon’s surface until it eventually would intersect the Lunar surface – run into the Moon. Eventually, this had to happen as LADEE ran out of propulsion fuel.

The blink comparator used by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory to discover Pluto in 1930. The basic approach has since been translated into computer software capable of searching many times faster than a human. (Photo Credit: MWT Associates)
The blink comparator used by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory to discover Pluto in 1930. The basic approach has since been translated into computer software capable of searching many times faster than a human. (Photo Credit: MWT Associates/Melitatrips)

The method used by the LROC team in its basic approach is by no means new. Clyde Tombaugh used a blink comparator to search for Planet X for several months and many frame pairs of the night sky. The comparator would essentially show one image and then a second of the same view taken a few nights apart to Clyde’s eye. Tombaugh’s eye and brain could process the two images and identify slight shifts of an object from one frame to the other. Stars are essentially fixed, don’t move but objects in our solar system do move in the night sky over hours or days. In the same way, the new software employed by LROC engineers takes two images and compares them mathematically. A human is replaced by a computer and software to weed out the slightest changes between a pair of images; images of the same area but spaced in time. Finding changes on the surface of a body such as the Moon or Mars is made especially difficult because of the slightest changes in lighting and location of the observer (the spacecraft). The new LROC software marks a new step forward in sophistication and thus has returned LADEE back to us.

The following Lunar Orbiter image from the 1960s is high contrast and reveals surface relief in much more detail. Einstein crater is clearly seen, as is Sundman with J and V satellite craters on its rim.

A NASA Lunar Orbiter image of the LADEE impact site. Einstein is actually a old low profile crater 198 km in diameter with 51 km "Einstein A" at its center. Sundman is also a low profile crater, 40 km, with satellite craters J (southwest), V (southeast). (Photo Credit: NASA)
A NASA Lunar Orbiter image of the LADEE impact site. Einstein is actually an old low profile crater 198 km in diameter with 51 km “Einstein A” at its center. Sundman is also a low profile crater, 40 km diameter, with satellite craters J (10 km dia., southwest), V (19 km dia., southeast). (Photo Credit: NASA)

References:

NASA’s LRO Spacecraft Captures Images of LADEE’s Impact Crater

Karl Frithiof Sundman (28 October 1873, Kaskinen – 28 September 1949, Helsinki)

The Blink Comparator and Clyde Tombaugh

NASA’s Highly Productive LADEE Dust Explorer Probe Crashes into the Moon as Planned

NASA’s LADEE lunar orbiting dust and atmosphere explorer probe has bitten the dust and crashed into the Moon’s surface exactly as planned following a fabulously successful and groundbreaking science mission that exceeded all expectations.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft impacted the far side of the Moon sometime overnight between 12:30-1:22 a.m. EDT, Friday, April 18 (9:30 and 10:22 p.m. PDT, Thursday, April 17) according to a NASA statement.

Running low on fuel and unable to continue any further science observations, the couch sized spacecraft was intentionally plunged into the rugged lunar surface at a spot designed to keep it far away from disturbing any of the historic Apollo manned lunar landing sites or unmanned surveyors on the Moon’s near side.

LADEE_Poster_01

Mission controllers at NASA’s Ames Research Center allowed LADEE’s orbit to naturally decay following the conclusion of the probes extended mission in the final low orbit science phase.

The probe was likely smashed violently to smithereens and mostly vaporized from the heat generated upwards of several hundred degrees. Any surviving debris may be buried in shallow crater formed by the impact.

“At the time of impact, LADEE was traveling at a speed of 3,600 miles per hour – about three times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet,” said Rick Elphic, LADEE project scientist at Ames, in a NASA statement.

“There’s nothing gentle about impact at these speeds – it’s just a question of whether LADEE made a localized craterlet on a hillside or scattered debris across a flat area. It will be interesting to see what kind of feature LADEE has created.”

The powerful NAC telescopic camera aboard NASA’s still orbiting Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will be directed in coming months to try and photograph the impact site after engineers pinpoint the likely crash site.

LRO has already imaged LADEE while both were co-orbiting in different lunar orbits.

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

After completing its primary science mission in March, the already ultra low altitude of the lunar orbiting probe was reduced even further so that it was barely skimming just 2 kilometers (1 mile) above the pockmarked lunar surface.

Such a low altitude thus enabled LADEE to gather unprecedented science measurements of the Moon’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and dust particles since the species would be present at a higher concentration.

Lots of fuel is required to maintain LADEE’s orbit due to the uneven nature of the Moon’s global gravity field.

The final engine firing was commanded on April 11 to ensure a far side impact and the safety of all the historic lunar landing sites.

“LADEE also survived the total lunar eclipse on April 14 to 15. This demonstrated the spacecraft’s ability to endure low temperatures and a drain on batteries as it, and the moon, passed through Earth’s deep shadow,” said NASA

LADEE was launched on 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 dating back to the Apollo Moon landing era.

All those objectives and more were accomplished during its nearly half year investigating Earth’s nearest neighbor.

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

It entered lunar orbit on Oct. 6, 2013 amidst the ridiculous government shutdown that negatively affected a number of science missions funded across the US federal government.

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.

NASA granted LADEE a month long extension since the residual rocket fuel was more than anticipated due to the expertise of LADEE’s navigation engineers and the precision of the launch atop the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket and orbital insertion.

“It’s bittersweet knowing we have received the final transmission from the LADEE spacecraft after spending years building it in-house at Ames, and then being in constant contact as it circled the moon for the last several months,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames.

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.

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.

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

Ken Kremer

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

NASA Announces ‘Take the Plunge’ Contest – Guess when LADEE Hits the Moon – Soon!

You can enter NASA’s ‘Take the Plunge’ contest and guess LADEE’s impending lunar impact date, expected on or before April 21, 2014. Credit: NASA
Contest entry details below – deadline soon[/caption]

When will LADEE hit the Moon for its looming end of mission finale?

NASA’s resoundingly successful LADEE lunar dust exploring mission is nearly out of gas – and needs your help, now!

With its inevitable doom approaching, NASA needs you to summon your thoughts and is challenging you to participate in a ‘Take the Plunge’ contest – figuratively not literally – and guess LADEE’s impending impact date.

LADEE, which stand for Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, will smack violently into the Moon and scatter into zillions of bits and pieces sometime in the next two and a half weeks, on or before about April 21.

But exactly when will it impact the lunar surface? NASA wants to hear your best guess!

The ‘Take the Plunge’ contest was announced by NASA today, April 4, at a media briefing.

For more information about the challenge and how to enter, visit: http://socialforms.nasa.gov/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
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

Between now and its inevitable doom, mission controllers will command LADEE to continue gathering groundbreaking science.

And it will do so at an even lower attitude that it orbits today by firing its orbit maneuvering thrusters tonight and this weekend.

The couch sized probe seeks to eek out every last smidgeon of data about the Moons ultra tenuous dust and atmospheric environment from an ultra low altitude just a few miles (km) above the pockmarked lunar surface.

But because the moon’s gravity field is so uneven, the probes thrusters must be frequently fired to keep it on course and prevent premature crashes.

“The moon’s gravity field is so lumpy, and the terrain is so highly variable with crater ridges and valleys that frequent maneuvers are required or the LADEE spacecraft will impact the moon’s surface,” said Butler Hine, LADEE project manager at Ames.

“Even if we perform all maneuvers perfectly, there’s still a chance LADEE could impact the moon sometime before April 21, which is when we expect LADEE’s orbit to naturally decay after using all the fuel onboard.”

LADEE will fly as low as fly approximately 1 to 2 miles (2 to 3 kilometers) above the surface.

Everyone of all ages is eligible to enter NASA’s “Take the Plunge: LADEE Impact Challenge.”

The submissions deadline is 3 p.m. PDT Friday, April 11.

NASA says that winners post impact. They will receive a commemorative, personalized certificate from the LADEE program via email.

Series of LADEE star tracker images features the lunar terrain.  Credit: NASA Ames
Series of LADEE star tracker images features the lunar terrain. Credit: NASA Ames

Watch for my upcoming story on LADEE’s science accomplishments and what’s planned for her final days.

LADEE was launched on 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 dating back to the Apollo Moon landing era.

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 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.

NASA granted LADEE a month long extension since the residual rocket fuel is more than anticipated due to the expertise of LADEE’s navigation engineers and the precision of the launch atop the Orbital Sciences Minotaur V rocket and orbital insertion.

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

Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention, NY on April 12/13 and at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ on April 6.

Ken Kremer

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

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 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