Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Chang'e Enigma

1,400 kilogigs of data, fifteen months in lunar orbit, and then the unannounced controlled de-orbit of Chang'e 1 should have more to show for the effort of the largest nation of people on Earth than an essentially useless, low-contrast optical image of the lunar surface. The People's Republic may try to lay claim to that image being the first of its kind but it is just not so, and I think most who study the Moon and the half century of its exploration know.

At least Clementine, a mission with an openly military objective, visited the Moon in 1994, returned volumes of data from an array of highly sophisticated sensors (its primary mission), before being "lost and gone forever." From the portal of the U.S. Geological Service, new interpretations of this fifteen year old data continues to yield discovery. This secretive "spectacle" method of lunar exploration is all show and no blow, and precisely the sort of thing that gets people talking about ruined cities and "spires" on the Moon.

It is strange enough, as it is, without China playing up what was, by all appearances, barely a major league accomplishment.

As far as the wasted opportunities for cooperation, Chuck Wood, the day before yesterday, said it well: "The pioneering Chinese lunar orbiter Chang'e-1, following commands, crashed onto the lunar surface at 0813 GMT on March 1, 2009.

Its impact was in northeastern Mare Fecunditatis near the small crater Messier J. There was apparently no advance warning and thus no chance for observers to look for an impact flash or plume. This would have been more than just an exciting event because imaging a collisional flash from a projectile of known mass, velocity and impact point would have provided a calibration for the ongoing imaging of meteorite impact flashes on the Moon, and possibly be of use to planners preparing for the impact of LCROSS in a polar crater."

Here is a video of the spotless control room and an animation of the Chang'e-1 crash.

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