12/17/2013, 00.00
CHINA
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Chang'e 3 mission: 'Jade Rabbit' sends first pictures/data from lunar surface

The high-tech Yutu rover is already vetting lava flows from the moon's Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains). Its analyses could reveal important geological activity on the earth's natural satellite. After landing on Saturday, the Chinese rover will be the first man-made object in history to study the stratigraphy of the lunar surface, which could lead to the development of the moon's natural resources.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Chang'e 3, China's first lunar exploration mission, has already begun working after making a successful soft landing last Saturday, the first of its kind since 1976.

Five of the eight pieces of scientific equipment on the Jade Rabbit (Yutu in Chinese) rover begun their observations of space, earth and the landing site in the Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains), east of the Moon's Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows), where it was originally set to land.

The telescopes and cameras are producing clear images, Zou Yongliao, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said at a press conference.

Yutu's is the first rover mission since the Soviet Union's Lunokhod-2 trundled through the grey soil 40 years ago.

According to Dr Paul Spudis, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the mission is already bearing fruit.

Although the rover touched down at the eastern edge of its designated landing box, the actual landing area was more interesting than its original destination and could fill in gaps in our knowledge of lunar history.

"Whether by design or fortuitous accident, this site is actually more interesting geologically than the spacecraft's original destination," Dr Spudis said.

Chang'e 3 landed at the extreme northern end of a sequence of lava flows, which are estimated - by counting the number of impact craters on them - to be very young in lunar terms.

Although it is unclear when this volcanic activity ended, these lavas began to erupt around 3.9 billion years ago. In the Mare Imbrium, the lavas appear to be between one and 2.5 billion years old, making them much younger than any of the rock samples returned from the Moon thus far.

This said, Yutu could lead to important discoveries on the geological activity of the earth's natural satellite. "With data from the rover, we might be able to reconstruct the volcanic stratigraphy of this region of the Moon," Spudis explained.

Launched in the 1950s by then Chairman Mao Zedong, the Chinese space program has picked up speed over the past decade. The Chang'e 3 is Beijing's third lunar mission, after those of 2007 and 2010.

Thanks to Yutu, scientists will be able to analyse the geological structure of the Moon, reconstruct its stratigraphy and look for possible natural resources.

China plans to launch Chang'e-5, a mission to return samples of rock and soil from the Moon, in 2017.

Beijing is also making huge strides towards the construction of the space station that should be operational between 2022 to 2032, after the International Space Station ends its mission around 2020.

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