Star Points: Foreign landers heading to moon a half-century later

Every so often we discuss goals and current developments from various participating countries in their efforts to explore the moon. There are a couple of new international developments worthy of reporting this month.

But first let us recall where this county was exactly 50 years ago in its own successful venture to plant humans wearing boots firmly on the moon’s surface and return them safely to earth.


NASA designed the Apollo lunar module (LM) for landing humans on the moon. The first LM was rocketed into space on Apollo 9 in March of 1969. Although only positioned and operated in Earth orbit on Apollo 9, the new machine was put through its paces. Both halves — a descent stage with a rocket engine for landing and an ascent stage with its own rocket engine for lifting off from the moon — were put through their paces. Also, emergency procedures were tested including getting from the LM to the Apollo command module (CM) by way of a spacewalk was tested. Under normal circumstances astronauts pass through a tunnel connecting the CM and LM.

The successful launch and testing of NASA’s new LM during Apollo 9 set the stage for the next Apollo flight. That next flight hoped to repeat many of the same tests of the LM systems but in lunar rather than Earth orbit.

Now, 50 years later, other nations are still trying to catch up to where America was back then. Some of them have gotten off the ground.

China has already gained experience in lunar orbiter and lander technology. China’s current lunar lander, Chang’e-4, was launched on Dec. 7. It landed successfully on Jan. 3 in the Von Kármán crater located on the moon’s far side not visible from Earth.

The lander included a rover named Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit 2) — the second successful rover landed by China on the moon. The rover is a wheeled vehicle that set off to explore the crater. One of the innovations of this mission is the far side landing.

In order to provide communications between the lander and controllers, a Chinese relay satellite named Queqiao was positioned at the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2 (a.k.a. L2), about a million miles from Earth and out beyond the moon. From there Queqiao relays commands and data between Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 on the lunar far side, and their controllers on Earth.

Although the moon blocks the line-of-site between Earth and L2, Queqiao maintains a “halo orbit” around L2 and at such a distance from it that Earth remains visible from Queqiao. Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 have been returning stunning images from the moon’s far side. Both “sleep” during the approximately 2-week-long lunar night every month during which no sunlight is available to illuminate their solar panels to provide electrical power.

China’s previous rover Yutu landed on the moon in 2013 but failed soon after waking up from its first lunar night.

The latest country to throw its hat into the ring of lunar exploration is Israel. The lunar lander is named Beresheet, Hebrew for Genesis — or, the beginning. Although developed in-country by Israel’s SpaceIL company, Beresheet was launched in February on an American made Falcon rocket manufactured by the private company SpaceX. Not only that, it rode piggyback on a mission that launched a communications satellite for Indonesia.

Because the communication satellite was only delivered to Earth orbit, Beresheet needed to fire its own main engine rocket to send it toward the moon. Its thrust is small so it will take nearly two months for Beresheet to arrive at the moon, in April. However, it’s hitch-a-ride strategy was a real cost saver for the Israelies.

There are several local astronomical events planned for this month.

A program is planned for Saturday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the Bear Branch Nature Center (BBNC) planetarium. It will be followed, weather permitting, by astronomical observing at the co-located B.F. Roelke Memorial Observatory. Reserve your seat in the planetarium by calling 410-386-2103. Observatory observing is free and starts after the program at 8:30 p.m.

The Westminster Astronomical Society’s (WASI’s) next happy hour star party at Milkhouse Brewery is planned for March 15, from 5-9 p.m. The telescope observing is free and weather permitting. The brewery is open rain or shine and located at 8253 Dollyhyde Road, near Mount Airy though across the county line in Frederick County near Libertytown.

At 6 p.m. on the following evening, Saturday March 16, join members from WASI at Charlotte's Quest Nature Center and Observatory in Manchester for monthly telescopic observing. The address is 3400 Wilhelm Lane.