Today, China became the latest country to touch down on the surface of the Moon. The China National Space Agency landed a Chang’e-3 lander on our local satellite, and deployed a rover with the adorable name Yutu, to check out the scene.
Yutu has been unleashed for a three-month jaunt to explore the Bay of Rainbows, a region primarily made up of plains of dark basaltic lava. On most maps of the lunar surface, the Bay is known by its Latin name, Sinus Iridium, and forms the dark spots visible from Earth. The Bay is one of the northwestern finger of the Mare Imbrium, and is partially surrounded to the northeast and southwest by the Montes Jura mountain range.
Yutu has garnered comparisons to Curiosity, which is currently traipsing around the Martian landscape. The first rover to take to the surface of the Moon in more than three decades, Yutu is China’s first time up there. In the eyes of many experts, this is a first step into a continued expansion of their space program, and an increased presence beyond our terrestrial atmosphere.
If you’re wondering why CNAS chose the Bay of Rainbows for their first excursion to the lunar surface, there is a very good reason. It isn’t just for the scenery, which is purportedly some of the most spectacular on the Moon. The ancient lava flows on the plain date back to a time when the Moon was full of volcanic action. Much like their counterparts back on Earth, these lava flows are full of extensive networks of subterranean tunnels beneath the surface. And if, or when, humans try to colonize the Moon, these are a likely location for such an endeavor. Being underground like this provides a built in barrier against the radiation that assails the surface. The rover has the ability to see to depths of 100-meters underground using radar, and the high-definition images could help locate suitable locations to settle.
Does this mean that China has designs on colonizing the Moon? Perhaps. It does sound like the plot of a James Bond movie, though in that iteration some madman is trying to install a death ray. In a show of scientific unity, CNAS plans to share any new information gleaned from the Yutu mission with other nations and space programs.
In addition to exploring the layered structure of the Moon, the mission has two other benefits. The Chang’e-3 lander is equipped with a powerful telescope. While it won’t actually move, this gives astronomers the opportunity to observe space without typical Earth-bound obstructions like wind, snow, clouds, and pollution getting in the way. This should provide longer, uninterrupted periods of study. The second additional benefit is that the lander is equipped with an ultraviolet camera, which is able see “the formation of the earth’s plasmasphere and its density change.”