China Moon Landing: Rover Rolling at Bay of Rainbows

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China's first-ever moon rover is driving on the lunar surface after successfully separating from its carrier lander to begin exploring its landing locale: the Bay of Rainbows.

The Chang'e 3 lunar lander reached the moon Saturday (Dec. 14) at about 9:12 p.m., Beijing time, making China only the third country in the world to achieve such a moon feat after the former Soviet Union and the United States. The lander also delivered the robotic rover Yutu ("Jade Rabbit") to the lunar surface to begin its months-long driving mission.

A few hours after landing, Yutu's wheels were unlocked by the firing of explosive devices and the rover unfolded its solar wings and deployed its instrument-laden mast. A cable connecting the rover and lander was then cut. A "transferer" system — resembling a pair of ladders set up on the lander —then unlocked to inch down closer to the lunar surface, allowing the Yutu rover access to the moon's surface to begin its lunar trek. [See photos of Chang'e 3 on the moon]

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"Chang'e 3 has been landed successfully on the surface of the moon today," said Zheng Yong-Chun of the National Astronomical Observatories and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The landing site in the Sinus Iridum (Latin for "Bay of Rainbows"), a region along the northern part of the Mare Imbrium ("Sea of Showers") in the moon's northern hemisphere. "The nearest nominated crater is Laplace F," Zheng said. "May Yutu (Jade Rabbit) begin exciting new exploration."

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The 1-ton Chang'e 3 lander relied on auto-control for its descent to the moon and became the first spacecraft to soft-land on the lunar surface since the former Soviet Union's Lunar 24 in 1976. [Most Amazing Moon Missions of All Time]

The lander hovered some 300 feet (100 meters) altitude above the lunar landscape as it scanned for a safe and sound landing point. The vehicle then throttled down its engine, free-falling to a legged landing.

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The lander itself carries scientific gear capable of observing the Earth as well as other celestial objects and is designed to serve for 12 months.

Both the Chang'e 3 rover and lander still face a battle with lunar night temperatures that plummet during 14 days of lunar night. Control of China's first robotic moon landing is being carried out at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.

Yutu rover on the moon

The Yutu moon rover is named after a pet rabbit that travels with the goddess Chang'e to the moon in Chinese legends. China has called each of its three moon missions to date after the Chang'e legend. The Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 orbiter missions launched in 2007 and 2010, respectively.