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Chinese rover hops on to the Moon

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Dec 16, 2013, 0:00 UTC

Sen—We're back on the Moon -- this time with high-resolution cameras and modern scientific instruments to document every step as the Chinese Yutu rover trolls around Mare Imbrium.

Yutu's arrival aboard Chang'e-3 marked the end of a 36-year drought in lunar surface activities, and put China as the third nation to make a soft landing on the Moon after the Soviet Union and United States.

"They've given the order to conduct the separation. and this picture shows the first steps of the rover moving forward," said Chinese network CCTV during the first broadcast of the rover's activities Saturday (December 14).

With only a two-second delay between the commands from Earth and the rover moving on the Moon, Chinese controllers carefully inched Yutu off of Chang'e-3's landing platform and watched as, two wheels at a time, the rover rolled on to the surface of the Moon.

The announcer added that people must have been "holding their breath" during the entire process.

"Now we can see that four wheels are all the surface. Now six. And there is applause," the announcer added as clapping was heard among Chinese controllers of the rover in the replayed video. "Applause means that the rover has officially stepped on its working site."

"Yutu" means "jade rabbit", a reference to an animal that accompanied the mythological Chang'e personage who lived on the Moon in Chinese culture. The rover is expected to last at least three months on the surface, exploring the ancient lava runs in the area.

Unlike the American Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, or the unmanned Soviet landings of the same era, this mission shows the newer trend of international collaboration. The European Space Agency (ESA) assisted the China National Space Administration with tracking as Chang'e-3 winged its way towards the Moon.

"Kourou station tracked Chang’e-3 for about 12 hours daily during 4–7 December. It also provided radiometric data for the precise determination of the mission’s trajectory en route to lunar orbit," stated Erik Soerensen, responsible for external mission tracking support at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

"This highlights the excellence of the Estrack network and the importance of using internationally agreed technical standards for exchanging data."

Yutu's first two days on the surface were cited by observers as an incredible engineering feat. Rover controllers have so far been conservative, focusing on taking pictures of the lander during its first full day on the surface on Sunday (December 15) before starting science activities.

China's Yutu rover rolls on to the surface of the Moon Dec. 14, 2013. (CCTV)

China also plans to deploy a small astronomical observatory, with its pictures being shared through the International Lunar Observatory Association, who in turn will offer Chinese astronomers time on their own observatories once ILOA arrives at the Moon itself. That is expected to happen in 2015 and 2017 when American company Moon Express makes two planned landings.

The so-far successful Chang'e-3 mission marks the third in a series of Chinese lunar probes since 2007. The country has ambitions to expand its space program in the coming decades. It wants to construct a larger space station to follow on from its preliminary work with Tiangong-1. It also has discussed sending people to the Moon in the coming decades.

As the United States and other partners discuss the future of the International Space Station -- agreements last until 2020, but could be extended -- China has made invitations to other nations to collaborate with its own activities. While Americans cannot easily participate due to security concerns cited by its administration, European astronauts have reportedly visited facilities from China's space program, and vice-versa, which could lead to closer collaborations in the future.