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China Has Had a Telescope on the Moon for the Past Two Years


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Point a telescope at the moon, and you might just see one looking back. Chinese researchers have reported that their robotic telescope, the first of its kind, has been operating flawlessly ever since it landed on the moon in 2013.

The 15-centimetre telescope is mounted on the Chang’e 3 lander, which touched down on the lunar surface in December 2013. Chang’e 3 (pictured above) carried the Yutu rover, which repeatedly struggled to survive the lunar night and ceased working in March this year – but the lander is still going strong.

The telescope sees in ultraviolet light, making it particularly suited for observations that aren’t possible here on Earth. “There is no atmosphere on the moon, so unlike Earth, the ultraviolet light from celestial objects can be detected on the moon,” says Jing Wang of the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, China, who is in charge of the telescope. And since the moon rotates 27 times more slowly than the Earth, the scope can stay fixed on the same star for a dozen days without interruption, he says.

Snapping Earth

In a paper published this week, Wang and his colleagues detail the first 18 months of the telescope’s operation, during which it has observed for 2000 hours and monitored 40 stars. The team also captured a picture of the Pinwheel galaxy, shown below.

Astronauts on the Apollo 16 mission had a manually operated UV telescope, which they used to take pictures of Earth, stars and the Large Magellanic Cloud. But the Chinese telescope is the first to be operated remotely from Earth.

That’s a challenge, because the moon is a hostile environment, full of charged and abrasive lunar dust that can get into equipment and destroy electronics, as Yutu’s troubles demonstrate. To counter this, the telescope is stowed within Chang’e 3 during sunrise and sunset on the moon, when dust is thought to be at its worst, and has survived much longer than its expected one year life. Wang says the scope is still working today, and the team are awaiting a decision to continue its mission past the end of this year.

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