China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft performed a nerve-wracking 12 minute descent and touched down safely on the lunar surface on Saturday, December 14 at 8:11 am EST. Several hours later, a 140-kilogram (300-pound) six-wheeled rover named Jade-Rabbit rolled down a ramp to begin its 3-month mission exploring the lunar rocks and soil.
China joins an elite club of nations–just the US and the old Soviet Union–that have managed to land intact spacecraft on the moon.
Outfitted with solar panels that the Chinese space agency says successfully opened soon after landing on the moon’s flat lava plains, the SUV-sized lander is now able to generate it’s own power and has begun to beam its first batch over nearly 60 images back to Earth, with the first hi-def panoramic images of its new desolate home to follow in the next day or two.
The rover’s original landing site wass situated within the basin of the 250-mile-wide (400-kilometer-wide) Sinus Iridium, or Bay of Rainbows, a large flat crater visible in the upper-left area of the full moon as seen from Earth. But the Chinese space agency decided to land the rover one orbit early, a bit to the east over Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains. This unexplored region offers the potential for discovery of interesting geological features, clear driving for the rover, and grand views of steep crater walls.
The advanced rover is equipped with four cameras and ground-penetrating radar. It sports a robotic arm outfitted with an alpha particle x-ray spectrometer that is capable of sniffing out the chemical makeup of rocks and soil.
This mission marks China’s first attempt to land on another celestial body. It not only looks to expand our understanding of the moon’s geologic history, but to impress the global community with China’s technological prowess.