At 1730 GMT (12:30pm EST, Dec 1 – 1:30am Beijing, Dec 2) the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) successfully launched the Chang’e 3 phase of its Chinese Lunar Exploration Program on-board a Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang launching base in southern China’s Sichuan province.
This phase of the program will incorporate a soft lander and a six-wheeled robotic rover named Yutu (Jade Rabbit). The flawless launch marked China’s first lunar landing mission and will be China’s first attempt at a controlled soft-landing on any surface away from the Earth.
Yutu, mounted on a stationary rocket-powered landing platform and packed with a ground-piercing radar, cameras, spectrometers and plutonium-powered heaters, upon landing will embark on its 3 month mission of studying the Moon’s geology, collecting images, exploring for natural resources, studying other galaxies and stars, as well as studying the near-Earth space environment. The lander is expected to perform a science mission of at least one year beyond the operations of the rover. The lander, along with Yutu, is scheduled to touch down December 14 on the Sinus Iridum basaltic plain at a latitude of 44° north. Once doing so, it will become the first spacecraft to perform a soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union‘s Luna 24 in 1976, breaking a 37-year gap in lunar surface exploration.
Utilizing a combination of solar panels and a Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) to meet its power requirements the Chang’e 3 lunar lander, with the rover as passenger, includes all systems needed for a Trans-Lunar Flight, a soft landing, and to carry out its scientific mission on the surface. This power combination also allows Chang’e 3 to conduct science operations during lunar day when sufficient power for instrument operation is available, and survive lunar night using the RTG to power vehicle heaters and core systems in Lunar-Night Sleep Mode.
The Chang’e 3 rover uses a six-wheeled main and sub-rocker-bogie suspension system similar to that used by NASA’s Curiosity. Unlike the lander, Yutu does not use an RTG power source, instead using two rectangular solar panels locked on the top deck for launch and descent, and which will deploy shortly after landing. Using the panels to generate power, the rover will operate throughout the two weeks of lunar day and charges its battery to survive the long lunar night.