Chinese Rover Reveals the First New 'Ground' Information about Our Moon in 40 Years

First Posted: Dec 22, 2015 12:00 PM EST

A Chinese rover is sending back the first new information about the moon seen in nearly 40 years. The rover, which touched down in 2013, is analyzing moon rocks and sending the data back to Earth.

The lander itself is called the Chang'e-3. It touched down on a smooth flood basalt plain on the moon next to a relatively fresh impact crater, which is now officially named the Zi Wei crater. This crater, in particular, had conveniently excavated bedrock from below the regolith. This allows the rover, named Yutu, to study it.

Because Cang'e-3 landed on a comparatively young lava flow, the regolith layer was thin and not mixed with debris from elsewhere. Thus it closely resembled the composition of the underlying volcanic bedrock. This characteristic made the landing site an ideal location to compare in situ analysis with composition information detected by orbiting satellites.

"We now have 'ground truth' for our remote sensing, a well-characterized sample in a key location," said Bradley L. Jolliff, one of the participants who helped analyze the mission data, in a news release. "We see the same signal from orbit in other places, so we now know that those other places probably have similar basalts."

The researchers also found that the basalts at the landing site are unlike those that were returned by the Apollo and Luna sample return missions. This diversity tells scientists that the upper mantle is much less uniform in composition than Earth's. This, in turn, hints at the fact that the Moon's volcanism changed over time.

"The variable titanium distribution on the lunar surface suggests that the Moon's interior was not homogenized," said Jolliff. "We're still trying to figure out exactly how this happened. Possibly there were big impacts during the magma ocean stage that disrupted the mantles formation."

The findings reveal a bit more about the moon. In particular, they show how we can still learn things about this small world located close to our own planet.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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