China and India’s Moon Rovers Take Different Paths on Historic Missions

After making history by becoming the first nation to successfully send a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, India is one of only two countries with active rovers on the lunar surface.

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After making history by becoming the first nation to successfully send a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, India is one of only two countries with active rovers on the lunar surface.

The other in that elite club is India’s biggest rival, China.

India’s rover Pragyan, which means wisdom in Sanskrit, exited the lander, went down a ramp and “took a walk on the moon!” Indian space agency ISRO announced on X, formerly known as Twitter. 

Read More: India First to Land Near Moon South Pole After Russia Fails

The six-wheeled vehicle will use its navigation cameras to survey the area and convey images back to Earth, with ISRO then sending instructions to the rover, which can travel as far as 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the lander, named Vikram.

If all goes according to plan, small rocks or dips in the Pragyan’s path shouldn’t pose major obstacles, since the rover has a suspension mechanism capable of moving up and down 50 millimeters (2 inches).

The successful touch down lifts India’s prestige in the global space race, after the country suffered a setback from a failed moon mission in 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to bolster the country’s place among the world’s space faring nations and in June India signed the Artemis Accords, a US-backed initiative with more than two dozen other countries to govern joint missions and civilian space exploration.

There’s no chance of the Indian rover bumping into Pragyan’s Chinese counterpart, Yutu-2. The Indian rover is near the lunar south pole, while China’s hasn’t roamed far from where it first touched ground about 45 degrees south latitude.

Compared to China’s sturdy rover, India’s probably won’t last very long. ISRO has said Pragyan has a mission life of just one lunar day, or 14 Earth days, while Yutu-2 has been operating since early 2019, when it reached the lunar surface as part of a Chinese mission that was the first to land on the far side of the moon.

Jade Rabbit

Yutu-2 is still roaming the lunar surface, turning off during the two-week lunar night when temperatures fall to more than minus 170C (minus 274F).

The name Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, refers to the rabbit that in Chinese mythology accompanied the goddess Chang’e to the moon.

The first Chinese rover on the moon, Yutu, rolled off the Chang’e 3 lander and onto the lunar surface in December 2013. A six-wheeled vehicle relying on solar power and capable of carrying a 20-kilogram (44 pounds) payload, it had a maximum range of 10 kilometers and could explore an area of 3 square km over 90 Earth days.

It traveled on the lunar surface for 31 months — 19 more than planned — before the Xinhua news agency announced in August 2016 it had ceased operating.

China’s next-generation rover, scheduled for the Chang’e 7 mission to be launched around 2026, will be bigger than Yutu-2 but with a similar structure, Tang Yuhua, deputy general designer of Chang’e-7, told state broadcaster CCTV in January.

The new Yutu will also be more autonomous in path planning, relying less on instructions from Earth, Tang said.

Other Asian countries have ambitions to deploy rovers of their own traveling on the lunar surface, with both Japan and South Korea working with their biggest automakers on vehicles that are still under development.  

Toyota, Hyundai

Hyundai Motor Co. in April said it had started building a prototype of a lunar rover, part of a partnership with major Korean research institutes first announced last year.

Toyota Motor Corp. has been working with JAXA, the Japanese space agency, since 2019 on a pressurized rover capable of carrying people. They want to be ready by 2029 for use in the Artemis program, NASA’s initiative to return astronauts to the moon.

The US space agency “expects Japan to provide it as a contribution” to Artemis, according to a JAXA presentation released last month. The Japanese rover will play “a major role for sustainable lunar exploration under the Artemis program.”

In the meantime, the US is hoping to send its own spacecraft to the moon soon to join the rovers that are already there. Two commercial companies, Astrobotic Technology Inc. and Intuitive Machines Inc., have developed lunar landers through a partnership with NASA’s Artemis program, both of which are supposed to launch before the end of the year. If they are successful, they will be the first privately funded spacecraft to touch down on the moon.

–With assistance from Ocean Hou, Ragini Saxena and Loren Grush.

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