While NASA looks to Mars, China collects first Moon shots in decades

While NASA looks to Mars, China collects first Moon shots in decades

By Graham Templeton Jan. 2, 2015 12:02 pm china moon head

China’s space agency may be coming up at an astonishing pace, but it still has little chance to beat NASA to Mars. Given the sheer amount of public support that now exists for space science in China, it’s not impossible to imagine the Eastern behemoth eventually overtaking the United States, but for now NASA still enjoys a comfortable lead in both technology and talent.

As China goes through the motions of catching up to the leading edge of human achievement, it must go back and jump over hurdles that have long been forgotten by more experienced nations. As part of this rapid-fire quest to recapitulate the entire history of space science in just over a decade, China recently landed a rover on the Moon — and its data are bringing us real scientific discoveries to go with the amazing Lunar vistas.

The rover, called Yutu or “Jade Rabbit,” has had its share of problems since touching down on our satellite body. Shortly after beginning its mission, the rover stalled due to problems in its solar panels and onboard computers; the little rover has struggled valiantly to regain control and to continue some aspect of its mission, and it has been able to send back some useful readings of the rocks around it, and shots of the amazing Lunar landscape.
There’s a charming, Apollo-esque grain to the photos that impresses on us that, old news or not, landing a robot on the Moon is still an astonishing feat of engineering. Also, and maybe this is just me, but there’s something oddly compelling about seeing the surface of our old friend the Moon once again, and seeing that it is totally unchanged from our last visit. To a human being, it seems like it was a long time ago that the Soviet Luna probes snapped our last surface photos of the Moon, but in planetary time 1970’s were just an instant ago.

Where it stalled in the Moon’s Mare Imbrium trench, Yutu has been returning readings from physical rock and dust samples. While scientists expected to find an elemental composition fairly close to that found by the Apollo missions, they actually recorded a significantly higher iron content. Theory suggests that this might be the result of a nearby impact which threw out large amount of iron-rich material from the Moon’s bedrock. These sorts of readers aren’t just of overall interest to scientists, they give us insight into the overall composition of the Moon, not just at the surface but at mining depths as well.

One major reason for China’s interest in the Moon is that, in addition to being a necessary step on the road to overtaking NASA, the Moon could be the next frontier in resource dominance. Jade Rabbit has an explicit mission to search for signs of useful or salable materials on the Moon, preferably in dense enough deposits to be worth mining.

But of course, all soil sample readings aside, it’s the photos that really keep coming back. China’s Chang’e 3 mission, of which Yutu was the final stage, has produced some amazing surface shots, featuring not only amazing tech but alien vistas nobody has ever seen before. The Mare Imbrium trench is a huge fissure in the moon’s surface, so deep and dark early astronomers thought it was a literal mare — a sea. Its rocky terrain is unlike anything you’d find on Earth, with sharp rocks jutting out at jagged angles since there’s no weather to grind them down.

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