The last rover to be operational on the Moon was the Soviet Union’s Lunokhod 2, in January of 1973. Since then, we humans have focused most of our robotic exploration efforts on more, well, exotic locations, like Venus and Mars. This should by no means be taken to imply that we know everything there is to know about the Moon, or that it’s all boring and no fun up there. Realistically, it could be the closest spot for long-term habitation, but we still have a lot more to learn, so it’s about time that we went back there to do some exploring. And the “we,” in this case, is China.
At 8:11 a.m. EST on Dec. 14, China’s “Jade Rabbit” or (“Yutu”) rover made a soft touchdown on the Moon, aboard the Chang’e 3 lander. The rover deployed about seven hours later, and the lander snapped this picture of it on the surface.
We don’t know a whole heck of a lot about China’s rover, because China hasn’t made all that much public. It’s slightly smaller than Opportunity (which is still driving around on Mars, incidentally), and has a mass of about 120 kilos, with 20 kilos of payload. That payload consists of stereo panoramic cameras, spectrometers, and ground-penetrating radar. It has some autonomous navigation capability, and may be able to send live video back to Earth, which would be pretty cool.
We’re hoping to get a lot more information (and data) back from Jade Rabbit over the next few weeks, and the mission itself is scheduled to last a minimum of three months. In 2015, China plans to send a second rover to the Moon, and after that, they’ll try and get a robotic drilling rig to dig up a sample and send it back to Earth.