Chang'e 3 is en route to the Moon and should deliver a lander and rover to the Moon's Sinis Iridum region on December 14th.
The Moon is about to receive its first landing visitor of the 21st century. China's Chang'e 3 spacecraft, launched December 1st at 17:30 Universal Time (1:30 a.m. December 2nd in Beijing), should drop onto the lunar surface on December 14th. Some reports suggest the landing site will be in Sinus Iridum, on the northern margin of Mare Imbrium (upper-left part of the Moon as viewed from Earth).
Chang'e 3 consists of a service module and a landing vehicle. The 1,200-kg (2,600-pound) lander is equipped with an imaging spectrometer, a panoramic camera, and a ground-penetrating radar. It also carries a telescope to observe Earth's plasmasphere (geocorona).
Once safely on the lunar surface, the Chang'e-3's lander will deploy a solar-powered, six-wheeled rover to explore the terrain around the landing site. The rover called Yutu, named for the pet rabbit of Chang'e, a mythological Chinese woman who takes magic pills that allow her (and the rabbit) to fly to the Moon.
While expected to yield new insights into lunar science, Chinese officials emphasize that the Chang'e 3 mission is only a precursor to human exploration of the Moon — around it and on it — in the future.
Chang'e 3 is the third spacecraft of the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). Chang'e 1 and 2 launched in 2007 and 2010, respectively. (Chang'e 2 is currently traveling through deep space after a close encounter with asteroid 4179 Toutatis this time last year).
This spacecraft is the first China will attempt to land on an extraterrestrial body. If everything goes smoothly, this nation will join the exclusive ranks of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union as the only countries to land something on lunar soil.
Chang'e 3 and Yutu are not the only spacecraft now investigating the Moon. NASA launched its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) in September 2013. LADEE is an orbiter with a projected mission of 160 days. While China and the U.S. are not collaborating on their respective lunar missions, they will not hinder each other. In fact, the Yutu rover may enhance LADEE's studies and data collection.
Specifically, rocket exhaust released by the lander could provide a unique opportunity for scientific experimentation. Given that scientists know how, where, and when Chang'e 3 will arrive and land, LADEE may be able to see how the composition and amount of exhaust introduced into the lunar atmosphere migrates around the Moon. One component of the lander's exhaust is water. Observation of its migration could illuminate how water could be trapped at the lunar poles, which NASA Program Scientist Sarah Noble says is "a topic of considerable interest to the planetary community."
Historical note: Although several spacecraft have impacted the Moon in recent years, Chang'e 3 will mark the first attempt to soft-land a spacecraft on the lunar surface since Luna 24 did so in 1976.
Emily Poore, Sky & Telescope's editorial intern, has a B.A. in physics and English literature, and is a publishing and writing graduate student at Emerson College.