On the evening of December 14, 9:12pm Beijing time, China became only the third country ever to land a spacecraft on the moon. The following day, an unmanned rover was deployed to explore the lunar surface. The accomplishment is another step in a planned two-decade project that aims to place a Chinese astronaut on the moon before 2030.
A largely unknown facility in the eastern hills of Kunming is playing a crucial role, first in guiding the Chang'e 3 (嫦娥三号) spacecraft to a soft moon landing, and now in monitoring the movements of the Yutu (玉兔), or Jade Rabbit, lunar rover. The Yunnan Astronomical Observatory (YAO) is home to one of four linked radio telescope facilities sending and receiving information to both the lander and rover.
When the Yutu rover disembarked from the Chang'e 3 landing module late Sunday night it first engaged its solar panels and then raised a directional radio antenna. Signals from the transmitter were beamed back to earth and captured by China's Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) array, which consists of the 40-meter radio telescope at YAO as well as others in Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi.
By linking the four radio telescopes, the China National Space Administration (国家航天局) can precisely ascertain coordinates of satellites, and now modules on the moon. Pinpoint accuracy from hundreds of thousands of kilometers is a necessity for a lunar landing, as it is in providing assistance for controlling the movements of the Yutu rover.
If all goes according to plan, the rover is expected to explore the moon's Bay of Rainbows. In addition to its antenna array, Yutu is equipped with a three-dimensional camera, ground penetrating radar, a robotic arm and spectrometer.
China first initiated its series of lunar exploration satellites in 2007 with the successful launch of Chang'e 1, which was designed to survey the surface of the moon three-dimensionally. That was followed three years later when Chang'e 2 — a more sophisticated lunar satellite — began orbiting the moon largely to gather information for the landing conducted this past weekend.
The satellites bear the name of the Daoist goddess of the moon. Chang'e was said to have been joined on the moon by her companion the Jade Rabbit, who created an elixir of immortality. His name was given to the lunar rover. Chang'e 3 and Yutu are expected to function for approximately three months, with the rover conducting ground-based experiments while the lander utilizes an ultra-violet telescope to examine the earth's atmosphere.
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