Published in The Patriot Ledger December 21, 2013
We all look up in the night sky and see the markings on the moon, the contrast between the dark lowlands called maria and the lighter highlands, but different cultures interpret the markings differently. We see a “man in the moon.” The Chinese see a rabbit.
Their legendary rabbit on the moon is a pet of their moon goddess Chang’e, and Yutu or “Jade Rabbit” is the name the Chinese space agency gave to the moon rover that they launched on December 2. The spacecraft carrying the Jade Rabbit to the moon was appropriately named Chang’e. This past Saturday, Chang’e successfully landed the Jade Rabbit in the Bay of Rainbows, on the edge of the right eye of our man in the moon (Mare Imbrium). This was the first successful soft landing on the moon since 1976, when the Soviets landed Luna 24, a sample-return mission. China is now only the third nation to make a soft landing on the moon.
China is also only the third nation to have launched its own astronauts, having already had five successful manned missions to low-earth orbit, including a spacewalk and docking with another spacecraft. (Its space station even played an important role in saving Sandra Bullock in the film “Gravity.”) The Chinese, who are credited with having invented rockets many centuries ago, have also launched two orbiters to the moon, and are planning a mission to Mars. Last year they had more space launches than the US. But the United States Congress, led by Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), has forbidden NASA from cooperating with the Chinese space program. The US has even opposed Chinese involvement in the International Space Station, fearing the transfer of technology of possible military use – the same concern that formerly limited our cooperation with the Soviet Union.
The Jade Rabbit, like NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, has six wheels to enable it to travel smoothly over rough terrain. It is expected to spend at least three months roving the moon and analyzing the lunar crust, soil and rocks. It is equipped with four cameras and two mechanical legs that can dig up to 30 yards into lunar soil. Considering how extensively NASA’s Apollo missions and Soviet unmanned rovers have explored the moon, major scientific breakthroughs are not expected, but the specific area it will explore, the Bay of Rainbows, has not been examined before, so discoveries are possible. The primary mission of the Jade Rabbit, however, is simply to demonstrate to the world that China now has sophisticated space technology.
India also recently flexed its space muscles with its November launch of an orbiter expected to arrive at Mars next September. Japan sent a spacecraft to Mars many years ago, has had a successful lunar orbiter and a very impressive sample-return mission to a near-Earth asteroid. The Russian program today is mostly centered on the International Space Station, with the astronauts carried to and from the station with Russian rockets. The European Space Agency, a consortium of 20 countries, has had numerous successes, including orbiters of Mars and Venus and a lander on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
But NASA still has by far the most extensive (and expensive) program of space exploration. NASA spacecraft have now traveled to all the planets of our solar system and to several asteroids and comets. It continues to study the moon with scientific orbiter missions, but has not landed on the moon since 1972, the last of the Apollo missions.
Back in 1969, when Apollo’s lunar module Eagle carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landed on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, the message sent back by Armstrong was “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Now, 44 years later, the rabbit has landed.