A Fresh View of the Moon’s Surface

National Geographic’s Dan Vergano contributed reporting to this story, as well as writing and editing. If I could post it with a shared byline, I would!

The moon is Earth’s nearest celestial companion, but we don’t often see fresh views of the lunar surface.

More than 40 years ago, the Soviet Luna probes took the last surface panoramas from the moon, and just about that much time has passed since the last robot actually went to work on the moon, rather than collecting data from orbit. Not since 1976, when the Luna 24 spacecraft scooped moon rocks from Mare Crisium and returned them to Earth, has any spacecraft collected data from a perch on the moon itself.

Now, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has posted a new gallery of images shot by China’s lunar-landing Chang’e 3 spacecraft and its little rover, Yutu (hat tip to Emily Lakdawalla at the The Planetary Society!). The images, some of which are in the gallery above, evoke a sense of adventure, of exploring a dusty, desolate alien landscape set amid the black curtain of space.

Chang’e 3 and Yutu have also returned a bunch of data to Earth, and mission scientists presented some of these results at two recent scientific conferences.

The Little Rover That Could

Chang’e 3 launched in December 2013. After a six-day journey, it slipped into lunar orbit and nine days later touched down in a vast volcanic basin called Mare Imbrium. The spacecraft quickly deployed its little rover, Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”), which went to work rolling around the rocky terrain and using a spectroscope to analyze the chemistry of the lunar surface.

Unfortunately, tragedy soon struck the little rover, in the form of a failed solar panel — and then again when when its driving computer short-circuited, preventing its power-saving shutdown for the lunar night. Yutu fell into hibernation in January and hasn’t yet woken up.

But before its long sleep, Yutu explored a crater in Mare Imbrium, traveling just over 328 feet (100 meters) before it stalled. Chinese scientists were surprised by measurements made at four stops on the rover’s route before it quit roaming, said planetary scientist Hao Zhang of the Chinese University of Geoscience in Hubei.

The rover team had expected to see lunar surface chemistry similar to the Apollo landing sites, Zhang told the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting last month. But instead the team found higher-than-expected iron concentrations in Mare Imbrium, alongside more expected values for magnesium, aluminum and other minerals.

The rover came to a stop beside the crater’s edge, near a 13 foot-wide (4 meters) boulder.  Darker than the rest of the lunar surface (see the image of “Dragon Rock” in the gallery above), the boulder was “unusual in its appearance,” Zhang said. The rover team suspects that it may have been ejected from a deep layer of basaltic bedrock by an ancient asteroid impact. The blast likely deposited the boulder at its resting place next to the rover.

Hot and Fiery History

Strange chemistry isn’t everything that China’s lunar duo is uncovering. Last week, at the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting, mission scientist Han Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences described the geologic features at Chang’e 3’s landing site.

Li reported that the spacecraft settled near a set of tectonic features called wrinkle ridges. These are long, curving ridges that form when lavas cool and contract. In Mare Imbrium, Li said, data from orbiters and from Yutu show that these wrinkle ridges have formed on top of billion-year-old basalts and small, young craters, which suggests the ridges formed relatively recently. “What’s exciting is that they deform ~100 meter craters, so they must be geologically recent,” Li wrote.

Among the many lunar mysteries waiting to be solved is how long magma oceans covered the ancient moon, which long ago possessed a decidedly different look than today’s grey, placid facade. The persistence of volcanic activity on the moon provides hints about both the moon’s formation and its early years, which aren’t as well understood as scientists would like.

Another mystery that might be solved soon? Whether Chang’e 3 will continue collecting data from the lunar surface.

“The lander has just finished receiving data for December, concluding one year of successful mission as planned,” Li says. “It has yet to be determined whether an extended mission will be carried out.”

At least there’s hope. And in the meantime, we can enjoy a fresh look at the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, thanks to Chang’e 3 and the Yutu rover.