In a triumph not accomplished since 1976, today a Chinese spacecraft safely descended to the lunar surface. Within hours, it had deployed a six-wheeled rover called Yutu.
Everything went according to plan today for Chang'e 3, the Chinese lunar spacecraft launched just two weeks ago. At 13:11 Universal Time (evening at the control center in Beijing), the craft descended onto Sinus Iridum, a flat volcanic plain along the northern margin of Mare Imbrium. Laser-altimeter and radar-ranging sensors helped guide the lander during its descent from a low orbit. The landing site is at 44.1°N 19.5°W.
The 1,200-kg (2,600-pound) lander is equipped with two panoramic cameras, which showed the surrounding terrain to be relatively flat with a modest crater nearby. In addition to hazard-avoidance cameras, the rover's instruments include a radar on its underside, which can probe beneath the surface to depths of perhaps 30 m (98 feet), and X-ray and infrared spectrometers to analyze the elemental composition of lunar samples.
This landing marks the first time a spacecraft has "soft landed" on the lunar surface (as opposed to crashing into it) since the Soviet Union's Lunar 24 sample-return mission arrived in 1976. The successful arrival of Chang’e 3 marks the first time China has landed anything on an extraterrestrial body.
Within a few hours, mission controllers commanded the lander to deploy a six-wheeled, 120-kg (260-pound) rover called Yutu. Here's coverage of the deployment provided by CCTV (Chinese national television).
In Chinese folklore, Chang'e is the Moon goddess. Yutu, meaning Jade Rabbit and chosen after an online poll, comes from a Chinese myth about a white rabbit that lives on the Moon.
Chang'e 3 is the third spacecraft in China's lunar-exploration program. CLEP officials hope that the scientific and engineering data gathered from this mission and its predecessors — Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 — will pave the way for future astronauts.