China’s moon rover, the first of its kind, is now in lunar orbit. On Sunday China successfully launched their new rover into space on a Long March 3B vehicle. By Friday the spacecraft, named the Chang’e 3, was officially circling the moon. Operators out of Beijing reported firing breaking thrusters for 361 seconds to get in the desired orbital path. Even a slight miscalculation during this stage could have botched the mission.
If the mission continues to be a success, the Chang’e 3 will be the first craft to complete a soft landing since 1976, reports Universe Today. 37 years ago was the last time any vehicle did so, when the Soviet Union successfully landed their unmanned Luna 24 craft on the moon.
The current mission aims to kick off the second phase of China’s unmanned space exploration program. Before this the Chinese saw success with their moon orbital spacecrafts, named the Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2, in 2007 and 2010. If the Chang’e 3 and its rover, the Yutu, are successful, the Chinese hope to carry out a lunar sample gathering mission by 2020.
According to Space.com, scientists at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center are now preparing the craft to land on the lunar surface, an event at least a week away. Right now the Chang’e 3 is about 60 miles above the moon, moving toward its landing site. With the help of rocket thrusters, the craft will set down very gently in the Bay of Rainbows. The site is a lava-filled crater that, when viewed from Earth, can be spotted in the moon’s upper left face.
Engineers have prepared the Chinese moon rover for unexpected complications during landing. The Chang’e 3 landing craft is equipped with software that can prevent a touchdown on rocky and uneven terrain in the final moments. It also has shock absorbers to soften the surface landing.
Once the Chang’e lands successfully, China’s moon rover, the Yutu, will begin its mission. The six-wheeled rover will use a number of included tools and sensors to explore the moon’s surface, including spectrometers and advanced radars. Scientists hope China’s moon rover will add to our understanding of the moon’s composition and origins.
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