China's first-ever moon rover is driving on the lunar surface after successfully separating from its carrier lander to begin exploring its landing locale: the Bay of Rainbows.
China's Chang'e 3 moon lander and its Yutu rover touched down on the moon Saturday (Dec. 14) at about 8:11 a.m. EST (1311 GMT), though it was late Saturday night local time at the mission's control center in Beijing during the landing. It is the first soft-landing on the moon by any spacecraft in 37 years.
Chang'e 3 launched toward the moon on Dec. 2 Beijing time to begin its two-week trek to the lunar surface. The spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit about five days after launch, and then began preparing for landing. A camera on the spacecraft snapped 59 photos of the moon during the descent, including a view straight from the lunar surface just after touchdown.
The lander hovered some 300 feet (100 meters) altitude above the lunar landscape as it scanned for a safe and sound landing point. The vehicle then throttled down its engine, free-falling to a legged landing.
The lander itself carries scientific gear capable of observing the Earth as well as other celestial objects and is designed to serve for 12 months.
Both the Chang'e 3 rover and lander still face a battle with lunar night temperatures that plummet during 14 days of lunar night. Control of China's first robotic moon landing is being carried out at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.
"The landing site for Chang'e 3 is in an area of basalt flows that are rich in Titanium similar to those returned by the Apollo 11 and 17 missions," saidClive Neal, a leading lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences.
Lawrence Taylor, director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute at the University of Tennessee's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, is a veteran Apollo lunar scientist. He, too, had high praise for China's Chang'e 3 mission.
"We Apollo lunatics salute you and your country in this marvelous event in becoming the third soft-landing nation. May your success, as initiated by your glorious 'Jade Rabbit,' be the catalyst to spur on all lunar exploration and be a bond to unite all people," Taylor said.
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