Jade Rabbit has just made history. On 14 December, it became the first Chinese rover to explore the Moon.
The rover was transported to the Moon on the Chang’e 3 probe, which had been launched from Xichang in southern China on 1 December atop a Chinese-developed rocket. Chang’e 3 is the first probe to touch down on the Moon since a Soviet mission in 1976.
The six-wheel, 120-kg rover (Yutu in Chinese) left the landing module by rolling down a ramp. Over the next three months, it will be exploring the volcanic plain known as Sinus Iridum. The rover has already sent its first photos back to Earth.
The rover is powered by solar panels and equipped with several scientific instruments, including ground-penetrating radar to analyse the soil and subsurface, cameras and a telescope to observe the cosmos from the Moon.
The lander will remain on the Moon for a year. Like the rover, it is solar-powered.
In recent years, China, India, Japan and the USA have all launched missions to the Moon. This rekindling of interest in our satellite after decades of indifference is linked to the Moon’s potential as a source of energy and rare minerals. The gas helium-3, for instance, is far more abundant on the Moon than on Earth and ‘could generate endless amounts of energy’, according to Farouk El-Baz, a geologist who helped select landing sites for the Apollo missions between 1969 – the year Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon – and 1972.
UNESCO was lead agency for the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.