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January 21, 2014
A wheeled vehicle has not been on the moon’s surface since the 1970s. Until December, that is.
China’s Chang'e-3 mission launched atop a Chinese-developed Long March 3B rocket on Dec. 1 from Xichang in the country's south, the BBC reported, and landed on the lunar surface on Dec. 14.
The successful touchdown — the first soft landing in nearly four decades — prompted NASA to congratulate the Chinese space agency on Twitter, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The landing is the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Union sent the sample-collecting Luna 24 mission in 1976. The last time America visited the moon was Dec. 14, 1972 with its Apollo 17 crew of astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt.
The Chang’e-3 spacecraft arrived in an area called the Bay of Rainbows before deploying its robotic rover, Yutu. The Chinese mission is named after an ancient Chinese myth about a moon goddess. Yutu, which translates to Jade Rabbit, was said to be her long-eared companion.
Yutu carries a more sophisticated payload than previous missions, including ground-penetrating radar that will gather measurements of the lunar soil and crust. The mission is designed to test new technologies, gather scientific data and build intellectual expertise, as well as scout for mineral resources that could eventually be mined.
The lander will operate there for a year, while the rover is expected to work for some three months. Within a month, the mission had returned its first scientific data about the surrounding lunar rock chemistry via the rover’s onboard chemical sniffer, the Alpha X-ray Spectrometer (APXS) instrument, according to National Geographic. In January, it turned its attention to the mineralogy and geology of the surrounding dusty terrain.
This isn’t expected to be the last trip to the moon for China. In 2017, a mission is planned to bring samples of lunar soil back to Earth. And this may set the stage for further robotic missions, and - perhaps - a crewed lunar mission in the 2020s, the LA Times reported.
Watch the YouTube video of the soft landing from orbit to ground.
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