Researchers offer explanations for ‘gel’ discovered by Chinese moon rover

Researchers believe that a Chinese rover found glass, not gel, on the moon's surface.

Researchers are offering explanations for the identity of the “gel-like” substance that China claimed its Yutu-2 lunar rover found on the far side of the moon.

A Forbes report suggests that the Google-translated diary entry from the rover “may have simply been mistranslated.” Gel can’t exist on the moon because the luminous body doesn’t have an atmosphere “or any sort of biology; there aren’t any fluids flowing on its surface; there is no active volcanism of any kind.”

So, what exactly did the Chinese rover find?

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Glassy Lunar Impact

According to the rover’s diary entry, chief of the model team Yu Tianyi saw “a gel with a mysterious luster lying in the center of the crater” in a panoramic photo. The report also noted that its shape and color “is significantly different from the surrounding lunar soil.”

Mission scientists couldn’t identify the substance from a great distance. So, they directed the rover to use its Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) to try to figure out what the foreign material is.

So far, the Asian nation’s space agency has not provided any updates.

However, University of Notre Dame lunar geology specialist Clive Neal reportedly thinks that the rover probably found glass that formed during a lunar impact.

Comets and asteroids can crash into the moon at high speeds. Upon impact, the underlying rock melts due to excessive heat and pressure. In turn, this reaction could produce numerous molten pools. With the moon’s freezing temperatures and the harsh interstellar environment, the pools cool and turn into glass.

Thus, Neal thinks that the “jack rabbit” rover might have stumbled upon this kind of residue.

Mistaken Translation

Neal’s explanation seems plausible. Other researchers think that the diary’s Google translation is inaccurate.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center lunar geologist Daniel Moriarty shared his thoughts with Forbes and on Twitter. He noted that he and his Goddard colleague, Noah Petro, felt that the original meaning of the Chinese characters translated as “gel” was closer to “glass” or “shiny.”

Petro recalled glass-filled crater floors that the Apollo 17 team discovered in a separate post.

Another NASA GSFC colleague, Jacob Richardson, says that the characters could be translated as “gluey” or “glossy.” He also called the Chinese blog’s translation “misleading” in the thread.

Words like “shiny” and “glossy” accurately describe glass. “Gel” implies that the material is gooey or soft. So, this type of substance lying on the moon’s surface doesn’t make sense.

Most likely, the colorful lunar material is impact-born glass or the result of volcanic eruptions. Moriarty said that both events occur across the lunar surface.

Future Lunar Exploration Plans

China made history back in January when its Chang’e 4 probe made the first-ever soft landing on the enigmatic far side of the moon. As the Sino nation continues to explore the dark lunar surface, NASA is preparing for its own Artemis mission. The program aims to land humans (and the first woman) on the moon by 2024.

Last month, the U.S. space agency announced that Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is leading the Human Landing System Program.

NASA is partnering with many different organizations to achieve its lunar goals. The agency’s long-term plan aims for astronauts to live on a lunar Gateway for extended periods. From there, they’ll make repeat trips back and forth to the lunar surface. Ultimately, NASA is planning to “establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028.”