NASA Lunar Orbiter snaps Spectacular Images of Yutu Moon Rover driving around Chang’e-3 Lander

Yutu rover drives around Chang’e-3 lander – from Above And Below
Composite view shows China’s Yutu rover and tracks driving in clockwise direction around Chang’e-3 lander from Above And Below (orbit and surface). The Chang’e-3 timelapse lander color panorama (bottom) and orbital view (top) from NASA’s LRO orbiter shows Yutu rover after it drove down the ramp to the moon’s surface and began driving around the landers right side, passing by craters and heading south on Lunar Day 1. It then moved northwest during Lunar Day 2. Arrows show Yutu’s positions over time.
Credit: CNSA/NASA/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo/Mark Robinson
See below more mosaics and LRO imagery
Story updated[/caption]

The powerful telescopic camera aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has captured spectacular new images detailing the traverse of China’s Yutu moon rover around the landing site during its first two months exploring the Moon’s pockmarked grey terrain.

The newly released high resolution LRO images even show Yutu’s tracks cutting into the lunar surface as the world famous Chinese robot drove in a clockwise direction around the Chang’e-3 lander that delivered it to the ground in mid-December 2013.

You can precisely follow Yutu’s movements over time – from ‘above and below’ – in our new composite view (shown above) combining the latest LRO image with our timelapse mosaic showing the rover’s history making path from the touchdown point last December to today’s location.

Yutu is China’s first ever Moon rover and successfully accomplished a soft landing on the Moon on Dec. 14, 2013, piggybacked atop the Chang’e-3 mothership lander.

Barely seven hours after touchdown, the six wheeled moon buggy drove down a pair of ramps onto the desolate gray plains of the lunar surface at Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains) covered by volcanic material.

LROC February 2014 image of Chang'e 3 site. Blue arrow indicates Chang'e 3 lander; yellow arrow points to Yutu (rover); and white arrow marks the December location of Yutu. Yutu's tracks can be followed clockwise around the lander to its current location. Image width 200 meters (about 656 feet).  Credit:  NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
LROC February 2014 image of Chang’e 3 site. Blue arrow indicates Chang’e 3 lander; yellow arrow points to Yutu (rover); and white arrow marks the December location of Yutu. Yutu’s tracks can be followed clockwise around the lander to its current location. Image width 200 meters (about 656 feet). Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Altogether three images of the rover and lander have been taken to date by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) aboard LRO – specifically the hi res narrow angle camera (NAC).

The LROC NAC images were captured on Dec. 25, 2013, Jan. 21, 2014 and Feb. 17, 2014 as LRO soared overhead.

The four image LRO composite below includes a pre-landing image taken on June 30, 2013.

Four LROC NAC views of the Chang'e 3 landing site. A) before landing, June 30, 2013 B) after landing, Dec. 25, 2013 C) Jan. 21, 2014 D) Feb. 17, 2014 Width of each image is 200 meters (about 656 feet). Follow Yutu's path clockwise around the lander in "D."  Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
Four LROC NAC views of the Chang’e 3 landing site. A) before landing, June 30, 2013 B) after landing, Dec. 25, 2013 C) Jan. 21, 2014 D) Feb. 17, 2014 Width of each image is 200 meters (about 656 feet). Follow Yutu’s path clockwise around the lander in “D.” Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

Since the solar incidence angles were different, the local topography and reflectance changes between images showing different levels of details.

“In the case of the Chang’e 3 site, with the sun higher in the sky one can now see the rover Yutu’s tracks (in the February image),” wrote Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator for the LROC camera in an LRO update.

The solar powered rover and lander can only operate during periods of lunar daylight, which last 14 days each.

During each lunar night, they both must power down and enter hibernate mode since there is no sunlight available to generate power and no communications are possible with Earth.

Here is a gif animation from the NASA LRO team combining all four LROC images.

Four views of the Chang'e 3 landing site from before the landing until Feb. 2014. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University
Four views of the Chang’e 3 landing site from before the landing until Feb. 2014. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

During Lunar Day 1, Yutu drove down the landers ramps and moved around the right side in a clockwise direction.

By the end of the first lunar day, Yutu had driven to a position about 30 meters (100 feet) south of the Chang’e-3 lander, based on the imagery.

See our complete 360 degree timelapse color panorama from Lunar Day 1 herein and at NASA APOD on Feb. 3, 2014 – assembled by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

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

After awakening for Lunar Day 2, Yutu then moved northwest and parked about 17 meters (56 feet) southwest of the lander, according to Robinson.

By comparing the Janaury and February images “it is apparent that Yutu did not move appreciably from the January location,” said Robinson.

At this moment Yutu and the companion Chang’e-3 lander are sleeping through their 3rd Lunar Night.

They entered hibernation mode on Feb. 22 and Feb. 23, 2014 respectively.

Hopefully both probes will awaken from their slumber sometime in the next week when the Moon again basks in daylight glow to begin a 4th day of lunar surface science operations.

“We all wish it would be able to wake up again,” said Ye Peijian, chief scientist of the Chang’e-3 program, according to CCTV, China’s state run broadcaster.

However, the hugely popular ‘Yutu’ rover is still suffering from an inability to maneuver its life giving solar panels. It is also unable to move – as I reported here.

The 140 kg rover is now nearing its planned 3 month long life expectancy on a moon roving expedition to investigate the moon’s surface composition and natural resources.

Chang’e-3/Yutu Timelapse Color Panorama  This newly expanded timelapse composite view shows China’s Yutu moon rover at two positions passing by crater and heading south and away from the Chang’e-3 lunar landing site forever about a week after the Dec. 14, 2013 touchdown at Mare Imbrium. This cropped view was taken from the 360-degree timelapse panorama. See complete 360 degree landing site timelapse panorama herein and APOD Feb. 3, 2014. Chang’e-3 landers extreme ultraviolet (EUV) camera is at right, antenna at left. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com.   See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014:  http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm
Chang’e-3/Yutu Timelapse Color Panorama
This newly expanded timelapse composite view shows China’s Yutu moon rover at two positions passing by crater and heading south and away from the Chang’e-3 lunar landing site forever about a week after the Dec. 14, 2013 touchdown at Mare Imbrium. This cropped view was taken from the 360-degree timelapse panorama. See complete 360 degree landing site timelapse panorama herein and APOD Feb. 3, 2014. Chang’e-3 landers extreme ultraviolet (EUV) camera is at right, antenna at left. Credit: CNSA/Chinanews/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo – kenkremer.com. See our complete Yutu timelapse pano at NASA APOD Feb. 3, 2014: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140203.htm

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

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, Orion, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more planetary and human spaceflight news. Learn more at Ken’s upcoming presentations at the NEAF astro/space convention on April 12/13.

Ken Kremer

Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover – from Above And Below  Composite view shows China’s Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover from Above And Below (orbit and surface) – lander color panorama (top) and orbital view from NASA’s LRO orbiter (bottom). Chang’e-3 lander color panorama shows Yutu rover after it drove down the ramp to the moon’s surface and began driving around the landers right side to the south. Yellow lines connect craters seen in the lander panorama and the LROC image from LRO (taken at a later date after the rover had moved), red lines indicate approximate field of view of the lander panorama. Credit: CNSA/NASA/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo/Mark Robinson
Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover – from Above And Below Composite view shows China’s Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover from Above And Below (orbit and surface) – lander color panorama (top) and orbital view from NASA’s LRO orbiter (bottom). Chang’e-3 lander color panorama shows Yutu rover after it drove down the ramp to the moon’s surface and began driving around the landers right side to the south. Yellow lines connect craters seen in the lander panorama and the LROC image from LRO (taken at a later date after the rover had moved), red lines indicate approximate field of view of the lander panorama. Credit: CNSA/NASA/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo/Mark Robinson
LRO slewed 54 degrees to the east on Feb. 16, 2014, to allow the LROC instrument to snap a dramatic oblique view of the Chang'e 3 site (arrow). Crater in front of lander is 450 meters (about 1,476 feet) in diameter. Image width is 2,900 meters (about 9,500 feet) at the center. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University
LRO slewed 54 degrees to the east on Feb. 16, 2014, to allow the LROC instrument to snap a dramatic oblique view of the Chang’e 3 site (arrow). Crater in front of lander is 450 meters (about 1,476 feet) in diameter. Image width is 2,900 meters (about 9,500 feet) at the center. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

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 1st Lunar Lander snaps 1st landing site Panorama

Portion of 1st panorama around Chang’e-3 landing site after China’s Yutu rover drove onto the Moon’s surface on Dec. 15, 2013. The images were taken by Chang’e-3 lander following Dec. 14 touchdown. Panoramic view was created from screen shots of a news video assembled into a mosaic. Credit: CNSA/CCTV/screenshot mosaics & processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
See the complete panorama below
Story updated[/caption]

China’s inaugural Chang’e-3 lunar lander has snapped the missions first panoramic view of the touchdown spot at Mare Imbrium.

Chinese space officials have now released the dramatic surface imagery captured by the Chang’e-3 mothership on Dec. 15, via a video news report on CCTV.

To make it easier to see and sense ‘the new view from the Moon’, we have created screen shots from the rather low resolution TV broadcast and assembled them into a photo mosaic of the landing site – see above and below mosaics by Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer.

The Chang’e-3 mothership imaged the stark lunar terrain surrounding the spacecraft after the ‘Yutu’ rover perched atop successfully drove all six wheels onto the moon’s surface on Dec. 15, barely 7 hours after the momentous landing on Dec. 14.

The individual images were taken by three cameras positioned around the robotic lander.

1st panorama around Chang’e-3 landing site after China’s Yutu rover drove onto the Moon’s surface on Dec. 15, 2013. The images were taken by Chang’e-3 lander following Dec. 14 touchdown. Panoramic view was created from screen shots of a news video assembled into a mosaic. Credit: CNSA/CCTV/screenshot mosaics & processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
1st panorama around Chang’e-3 landing site after China’s Yutu rover drove onto the Moon’s surface on Dec. 15, 2013. The images were taken by Chang’e-3 lander following Dec. 14 touchdown. Panoramic view was created from screen shots of a news video assembled into a mosaic. Credit: CNSA/CCTV/screenshot mosaics & processing by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Chinese scientists then pieced them together to form the lander’s first panoramic view of the lunar surface, according to CCTV.

“This picture is made of 60 pictures taken 3 times by the rover. The rover used three angles: vertical, 15 degrees tilted up, and 15 degrees down…so that we get an even farther view,” said Liu Enhai, Designer in Chief, Chang’E-3 Probe System, in a CCTV interview

The panoramic view shows ‘Yutu’ and its wheel tracks cutting a semi circular path at least several centimeters deep into the loose lunar regolith at the landing site at Mare Imbrium, located near the Bay of Rainbows.

After making its soft landing, the Chang’e-3’s lander took pictures around its landing spot. Credit: CCTV
After making its soft landing, the Chang’e-3’s lander took pictures around its landing spot. Credit: CCTV

A significant sized crater, several meters wide, is seen off to the left of Yutu and located only about 10 meters away from the Chang’e-3 lander.

Several more craters are visible in the pockmarked surface around the lander.

Mission leaders purposely equipped the lander with terrain recognition radar and software so that it could steer clear of hazards like craters and large boulders and find a safe spot to land.

Wheel tracks from Yutu moon rover. Credit: CNSA/CCTV
Wheel tracks from Yutu moon rover. Credit: CNSA/CCTV

Indeed just prior to touchdown, the lander actually hovered at an altitude of 100 meters for about 20 seconds to avoid the craters and rock fields which could have doomed the mission in its final moments.

See the dramatic Chang’e-3 landing video in my earlier report – here.

Here is our annotated screen shot from the landing video showing the eventual landing site in the distance:

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

The 140 kilogram Yutu rover then turned around so that the lander and rover could obtain their first portraits of one another.

“The rover reached the point of X after it went down from the lander, then it established contact with the ground. Then it went to point A, where the rover and lander took pictures of each other. Then it reached point B, where it’s standing now.” said Liu Jianjun, Deputy Chief Designer, Chang’E-3 Ground System, to CCTV.

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

Chinese President Xi Jinping and space agency leaders have hailed the Chang’e-3 mission as a complete success for China.

The Yutu rover, which translates as ‘Jade Rabbit’ will use its science instruments to survey the moon’s geological structure and composition on a minimum three month mission to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by potential future Chinese astronauts.

The lander will conduct in-situ exploration at the landing site for at least one year, say Chinese officials.

Hopefully, China will quickly start releasing full resolution imagery and video taken by the Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover at a dedicated mission website, like NASA does, rather than issuing photos of imagery from projection screens and televisions – so that we all can grasp the full beauty of their tremendous lunar feat.

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

Ken KremerLanding site of Chinese lunar probe Chang'e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. Landing site of Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-3 on Dec. 14, 2013. [/caption]

Tonight: The Rise of the 2013 “Mini-Moon”

  The final Full Moon of 2013 occurs tonight, and along with it comes something special: the most distant and visually smallest Full Moon of 2013.

Why doesn’t the annual “mini-moon” receive the same fanfare and hype that the yearly perigee – or do you say Proxigean to be uber-obscure – “supermoon” does? The smallest Full Moon of the year does appear to have a public relations problem in this regard. But as you’ll see, the circumstances for this week’s Full Moon are no less fascinating.

The exact timing of tonight’s Full Moon occurs at 4:28 AM EST/9:28 Universal Time (UT) on Tuesday, December 17th. This occurs just two days and 14 hours prior to the Moon reaching apogee on December 19th at 6:50PM EST/23:50 UT at 406,267 kilometres distant. This is one of the three most distant apogees of 2013, and the closest to Full for the year. It’s also with 500 kilometres of the most distant apogee than can occur, as the Moon’s apogee can vary between ~404,000 and 406,700 kilometres distant.

Tonight’s Full Moon will have an apparent angular diameter of around 29.8’ arc minutes, just a shade lower than the usual value quoted of around half a degree or 30’. The visual size of the Moon as seen from the Earth varies about 12% from 34.1’ to 29.3’. Also, the Moon is also about half an Earth radius more distant when it’s on the local horizon versus at the zenith overhead!

This is also the closest Full Moon to the December solstice, which occurs four days later on Saturday, December 21st at 12:11 PM EST/17:11 UT. This marks the start of astronomical summer in the southern hemisphere and the beginning of the winter season in the north. Think of tonight’s Full Moon as a sort of “placeholder,” marking the point at which the Sun will occupy during the June solstice on the Gemini-Taurus border.

This all means that tonight’s Full Moon rides high for northern hemisphere residents towards local midnight. But the “Long Night’s Moon” of 2013 is rather lackluster in terms of declination. While it’s the northernmost Full Moon of 2013 at a declination of +18.7 degrees, it’s a far cry from the maximum declination of +28.72 degrees (the angle of the ecliptic plus the tilt of the Moon’s orbit) that it can achieve. This only occurs every 18.6 years and last occurred in 2006 and will happen again around 2025. We’re currently headed towards a shallow minimum for the Moon’s orbit in 2015. Ancient European and Native American cultures both knew of this cycle of high-flying moons.

Not weird enough? The next “most distant Full Moon of the Year” happens only one lunation later on January 16th… within just 2 hours of apogee! Perhaps January’s Full Moon is due notoriety as a “Super-Mini Moon?” Such a pairing of “mini-moons” last occurred on 2004-2005 and will next occur on 2021-2022.

The footprint for the lunar occultation of M67. (Created by the author using Occult 4.0)
The footprint for the lunar occultation of M67. (Created by the author using Occult 4.1)

The Moon also visits some other celestial sights this week. After passing five degrees north of Jupiter on December 19th, the Moon heads towards an occultation of the open cluster M67 in the constellation Cancer on December 21st for northern North America. Though the Moon will be waning gibbous, it might just be possible to note the reappearance of the cluster on the Moon’s dark limb. Other occultations for the remainder of December by the Moon include an occultation of Spica on December 27th for northern Asia, Saturn on December 29th for Antarctica, and +3.6th magnitude star Lambda Geminorum for Canada on December 18th.

The passing of the Full Moon also means it will be entering into the morning sky, which also means bad news for viewers of the Ursid meteor shower which peaks on December 22nd and hunters of Comet C/2013 R1 Lovejoy, currently shining at +5th magnitude in the constellation Hercules low in the dawn.

Moon crossing Orion.
Moon crossing Orion this week. (Credit: Stellarium).

The keen-eyed may notice the Moon also transits through the northern end of the non-zodiacal constellation of Orion on Tuesday, December 17th. Did you know that the Moon can actually stray far enough away from the ecliptic to cross through 18 constellations? The Six non-zodiacal constellations it can transit are: Orion, Ophiuchus, Corvus, Sextans, Auriga and Cetus.

Other names for the December Full Moon include the Yule, Oak, and Cold Moon.

Finally, a new Earthly ambassador is now roaming the lunar surface.

China’s Chang’E-3 spacecraft landed on the Moon just outside of the Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridum) near Montes Recti in the northern section of the Mare Imbrium on Saturday, December 14th. The landing site is visible now on the lunar nearside, and can be seen with that new Christmas telescope you’ve been itching to try out. Look for the Sinus Iridum as a wide crescent scarp, a sort of “notch” in the top of Mare Imbrium:

Finding the landing site of Chang'e-3. Photos and graphics by author.
Finding the landing site of Chang’e-3. Photos and graphics by author.

China’s Yutu or “Jade Rabbit” rover has been beaming back some splendid images of the lunar surface!

So don’t let the cold temperatures deter you from exploring the lunar surface, and the strange but fascinating motions of our nearest natural celestial neighbor. Dress warm and be sure this Christmas season to raise a glass of ye ole Nog to the Solstice/Yule Moon.

Chinese rover & lander beam back Portraits with China’s Flag shining on Moon’s Surface

Yutu rover emblazoned with Chinese Flag as seen by the Chang’e-3 lander on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013. Notice the rover tire tracks left behind in the loose lunar topsoil. Credit: China Space
Story updated[/caption]

China’s ambitious lunar space exploration program achieved another stunning success Sunday night, Dec 15, when the countries inaugural Chang’e-3 lunar lander and rover beamed back portraits of one another snapped from the Moon’s surface – that also proudly displayed the brilliant red Chinese national flag shining atop an extraterrestrial body for the very first time in human history.

“I announce the complete success of the Chang’e-3 mission,” said Ma Xingrui, chief commander of China’s lunar program, during a live CCTV broadcast as the portraits were shown to a worldwide audience from huge screens mounted at the mission control at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC) in Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was on hand to personally witness the momentous events in real time.

A wave of cheers and high fives rocked around mission control as the startling imagery of the ‘Yutu’ rover and Chang’e-3 lander nestled atop the Moon’s soil in the Bay of Rainbows was received around 11:42 p.m. Sunday, local Beijing time, 10:42 a.m. EST, via China’s own deep space tracking network.

Xi Jinping’s presence was a clear demonstration of China’s confidence in its lunar team and the importance of this space spectacular to China’s prestige and technological prowess.

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

China’s ‘Yutu’ rover had just rolled majestically onto the Moon’s soil hours earlier on Sunday, Dec. 15, at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time – barely seven hours after the Chang’e-3 mothership touched down atop the lava filled plains of the Bay of Rainbows on Dec. 14.

The rover’s wheels left behind noticeable tire tracks as it drove across the loose lunar topsoil.

Read my earlier detailed accounts of the Dec. 15 drive by Yutu onto the lunar surface illustrated with an extensive photo gallery – here; and of the stunning Dec. 14 landing – here.

CCTV showed China’s President gleefully shaking hands and extending congratulations with many members of the mission team at BACC after seeing the high resolution photos of the Chang’e-3 rover emblazoned with China’s flag for himself.

Chang'e 3 lander as seen by the rover Yutu on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013.  Credit: China Space
Chang’e 3 lander as seen by the rover Yutu on the moon on Dec. 15, 2013. Credit: China Space

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

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

“The Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Central Military Commission [responsible for China’s space program] sends congratulations to all the staff that participated in the successful completion of the mission and China’s first soft landing on the moon,” said the Chinese vice premier Ma Kai during the CCTV broadcast.

“The rover and lander are working properly and reaching the goals set.”

“Chang’e-3 is China’s most complicated space mission,” said Kai. “This shows China is dedicated to the peaceful uses of space.”

“There are many more complicated and difficult tasks ahead.”

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

Indeed so far the Chang’e-3 mission has been primarily a highly successful demonstration of the extremely challenging engineering required to accomplish China’s first lunar landing.

Now the science phase can truly begin.

Over 4600 images have already been transmitted by Chang’e-3 since the Dec. 14 touchdown.

After rolling all six wheels into the dirt, Yutu – which translates as Jade Rabbit – drove to a location about nine meters north of the lander, according to CCTV commentators.

The rover then turned around so that the red Chinese flag emblazoned on the front side would be facing the lander’s high resolution color cameras for the eagerly awaited portraits of one another.

Yutu is nearly the size of a golf cart. It measures about 1.5 m x 1 m on its sides and stands about 1.5 m (nearly 5 feet) tall – nearly human height.

The 120 kg Yutu rover will now begin driving in a circle around the right side of the 1200 kg Chang’e-3 lander – for better illumination – at a distance ranging from 10 to 18 meters.

The rover will snap further photos of the lander as it traverses about from 5 specific locations – showing the front, side and back – over the course of the next 24 hours.

See the accompanying graphic – written in Chinese.

Yutu and the Chang'e 3 lander are scheduled to take photos of each other soon from locations outlined in this artists concept.  Credit: China Space
Yutu and the Chang’e 3 lander are scheduled to take photos of each other soon from locations outlined in this artists concept. Credit: China Space

Thereafter Yutu will depart the landing site forever and begin its own lunar trek that’s expected to last at least 3 months.

So the rover and lander will soon be operating independently.

They are equipped with eight science instruments including 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.

A UV camera will study the earth and its interaction with solar wind and a telescope will study celestial objects. This is done during the lunar day.

It will also investigate the moon’s natural resources for use by potential future Chinese astronauts.

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 two probes are now almost fully operational. Most of the science instruments are working including at least three cameras and the ground penetrating radar.

And although they have survived the harsh lunar environment thus far, they still face massive challenges. They must prove that they can survive the extremely cold lunar night and temperature fluctuations of more than 300 degrees Celsius – a great engineering challenge.

The rover will hibernate during the two week long lunar night.

A radioisotopic heater will provide heat to safeguard the rovers computer and electronics – including the alpha particle X-ray instrument on the rover’s robotic arm.

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.

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

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

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

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’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