Right now, China’s Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) roving vehicle is exploring the Mare Imbrium region on the Moon, in the early stages of a mission scheduled to last for three months. The Chang-e 3 lander that delivered Yutu to the Moon on December 14 was the first spacecraft to soft-land on the lunar surface since the former-Soviet Union’s Luna 24 sample recovery mission in August 1976. Its successful arrival makes the People’s Republic of China only the third nation, after the USSR and the United States, to place a spacecraft on the Moon. The rover itself is the first remotely controlled vehicle to operate on the Moon’s surface since USSR’s Lunokhod 2 explored the lunar terrain for four months in 1973.
The Powerhouse has a full-scale replica of the Lunokhod 2 Rover on display in the Space exhibition, as part of the theme on planetary exploration. This replica, made by the Exhibition Centre of the former Soviet Academy of Sciences, was originally on loan to the Museum as part of a group of Soviet spacecraft reproductions made available by the Academy of Sciences for the original Space-beyond this world exhibition that opened in 1988. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the now Russian Academy of Sciences offered the material for sale and the entire loan collection was purchased by the Museum.
Lunokhod 2 was delivered to the Moon by the Luna 21 lander on January 16, 1976, touching down in the Le Monnier crater in the Mare Serenitatis region. Between January 16 and May 11, when contact was lost with the rover, Lunokhod 2 travelled approximately 42 km, making it still today the farthest travelled of any robotic or human driven planetary vehicle (NASA’s Opportunity rover has so far covered over 37 km on Mars, while the Apollo 17 LRV, or Lunar Roving vehicle, covered almost 36 km on the Moon in December 1972).
As can be seen in this size comparison of different roving vehicles, the Chang-e lander and Yutu combined are a little larger than Lunokhod 2, but Yutu itself is smaller and lighter than the older rover, which weighed 840 kg, as compared to Yutu’s 120 kg. Both vehicles are powered by solar panels and use small nuclear power-sources to keep the spacecraft electronics warm during the freezing temperatures of the 14-day lunar night. Yutu carries a high definition television camera and a suite of instruments far more sophisticated than those available to Lunokhod 2, as well as a robotic arm, like that used on NASA’s Mars rovers Opportunity and Curiosity. Yutu is also believed to be more like the Mars rovers with some autonomous travel capability, where Lunokhod 2 could not travel without being directly driven from its mission control on Earth. The Lunokhod vehicles required a team of five controllers (including driver, engineer and navigator) in order to operate on the lunar surface.
Despite being ‘dead’ since May 1973, the Lunokhod rover was sold at auction, in situ on the Moon, in 1993 and purchased by British gaming entrepreneur and space tourist Richard Garriott. In 2010, its exact location was pinpointed in images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which has enabled scientists to recommence using its laser reflector to bounce lasers between the Earth and Moon to make precise measurements of lunar distance.
Although China has so far only released a relatively small amount of information about the Chang-e/Yutu mission, you can keep up to date with its progress at Emily Lackdawalla’s Planetary Society blog , Spaceflight Now and other space news websites such as Space.com and Universe Today. Let’s keep following this exciting new lunar exploration mission and see if it can surpass Lunokhod 2 forty year records!
Written by Kerrie Dougherty, Space Curator