NASA Reacts to China's Lunar Landing, LRO Images Chang'e-3 and Yutu

NASA Reacts to China's Lunar Landing, LRO Images Chang'e-3 and Yutu

NASA says it is looking forward to China publicly releasing the scientific results from the Chang’e-3 lander and Yutu rover that arrived on the lunar surface earlier this month.  Yesterday, NASA scientists released a photo of the duo taken by the U.S. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that has been in lunar orbit since 2009.

The photo was one of several taken by LRO’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) on December 24-25 when its orbit took it over the landing site in the Sea of Rains (Mare Imbrium).  The highest resolution image (below) was taken when LRO was nearly overhead at approximately 150 kilometers on December 25, with a pixel size of 150 centimeters.  NASA’s LRO team noted that the Yutu rover is only 150 centimeters wide, but shows up in the image because its solar arrays are effective at reflecting sunlight and the Sun was setting so the rover had a distinct shadow.

Source:  NASA website.  Caption:  LROC NAC view of the Chang’e 3 lander (large arrow) and rover (small arrow) just before sunset on their first day of lunar exploration.  LROC NAC M1132582775R, image width 576 m, north is up.  Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University. 

Chang’e is China’s mythological goddess of the Moon and Yutu is her companion, a jade rabbit.   Chang’e-3 and Yutu landed on the Moon on December 14, the first survivable landing on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 in 1976.

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), launched on September 3, 2013, also is in lunar orbit although its path does not pass over the Chang’e- landing site.  Nevertheless, it did watch for any increase in lunar dust or gases caused by the landing, but did not detect any.   LADEE’s studies were aided by two other NASA spacecraft that are orbiting the Moon, ARTEMIS P1 and P2.  They originally were part of a 5-spacecraft constellation of satellites studying interactions between the Sun and the Earth as part of the THEMIS mission.  After completing their primary missions in 2010, these two spacecraft were placed into lunar orbit to study the Sun’s interaction with the Moon and redesignated ARTEMIS (Acceleration, Reconnection, Turbulence and Electrodynamics of Moon’s Interaction with the Sun).

NASA’s statement on Chang’e-3 and Yutu, issued in response to media inquiries, referenced its ongoing robotic lunar exploration activities and noted that scientists around the world view China’s spacecraft as “a new scientific opportunity.”   NASA’s full statement is as follows:

“After sending 12 humans to the moon’s surface during the Apollo Program, NASA continues to explore the moon with three current missions, all in an effort to learn more about our nearest neighbor and enable exploration to an asteroid and Mars. We welcome all countries’ peaceful exploration of space, and look forward to China’s public release of the scientific results from the Chang’e 3 mission to the moon. NASA satellites will examine the lander’s arrival from various perspectives, and scientists around the world view it as a new scientific opportunity that could potentially enhance studies and observations of the lunar atmosphere that could contribute to our journeys to those farther destinations.”

The activities of the U.S. spacecraft may help dispel a misimpression among some members of the public that the United States is not doing very much in lunar exploration while China is taking the lead.  That viewpoint was exemplified by a reporter at the State Department’s daily briefing on December 16.  Neither the reporter nor the State Department briefer were well informed about the U.S. or Chinese space programs, but the gist of the conversation was the reporter asking whether China was taking the lead and how much its global standing would therefore benefit. 

Indeed, many of the news reports about China’s achievement suggest that the United States is losing its leadership position while China is forging ahead, which is hardly the case as LRO, LADEE and ARTEMIS demonstrate today (not to mention the long history of U.S. lunar exploration including the Apollo landings).  Unfortunately, the State Department spokeswoman did not make that case.  She at least knew that China had recently landed something on the Moon and offered congratulations, but demurred on answering any of the questions saying she simply did not know and would have to check with others.

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