China's Moon Rover Spied by NASA's Lunar Orbiter

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On Dec. 14, China’s Chang’e 3 lander successfully made a soft landing on the moon in the Mare Imbrium (“Sea of Rains”) region. China is only the third nation (after the U.S. and Russia) to succeed in landing a robotic lander on the lunar surface. Soon after touchdown, the lander lowered its six-wheeled solar powered rover Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) onto the lunar regolith to begin its 3-month primary mission.

On Monday, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter team released the first orbital snapshots of China’s lander and rover on the moon’s surface.

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The orbital imagery was captured on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 by the mission’s LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC). On the Dec. 25 pass, a high-resolution photograph was possible as the orbiter was 150 miles directly overhead. In that image, the pixel size represents around 1.5 meters on the lunar surface. As pointed out on the LROC blog, Yutu is only 1.5 meters wide, but could be resolved due to the high reflectivity of the rover’s solar panels and the shadow it cast on the landscape.

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To verify that the two tiny objects in the LROC observation are indeed the Chang’e 3 lander and rover, an earlier image (pre-Chang’e 3 landing) of the landing site was fortuitously available. A direct comparison could therefore be made. An animation of the “before” and “after” shots are shown here.

NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

For more information about the landing site and technical details about how the observation was made possible, read the LROC blog update.