The unmanned Chang’e lander, with its six-wheeled rover Jade Rabbit, is the first to make a soft landing on the moon since 1976
China successfully carried out the world’s first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades, the country’s state media announced on Saturday. The touchdown of the unmanned Chang’e 3 lander is the latest mission in the country’s ambitious space programme, which is intended to put a Chinese astronaut on the moon early next decade.
The lander – named after a Chinese goddess of the moon – carried a six-wheeled moon-rover called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, to its landing spot on a flat plain known as the Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows, after hovering over the surface for several minutes before selecting the best available landing spot.
The rover separated from the lander part of the probe eight hours after Saturday’s touchdown to embark on a three-month scientific exploration of the moon that will include digging into the lunar soil and carrying out geological surveys.
The success of the mission – which began when the Chang’e probe was blasted into space on 2 December on a Long March-3B carrier rocket – makes China the third nation to carry out a lunar soft landing after the United States and the former Soviet Union. The last landing was achieved by the Russians in 1976.
The Bay of Rainbows was selected for the craft’s landing because it has yet to be studied by lunar probes. The spaceship’s rover will be remotely controlled by Chinese control centres with support from a network of tracking and transmission stations around the world operated by the European Space Agency.
“It’s still a significant technological challenge to land on another world,” said Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane’s Space Systems and Industry. “Especially somewhere like the Moon, which doesn’t have an atmosphere so you can’t use parachutes or anything like that. You have to use rocket motors for the descent and you have to make sure you go down at the right angle and the right rate of descent and you don’t end up in a crater on top of a large rock.”
State-run China Central Television showed a computer-generated image of the Chang’e 3 lander’s path as it approached the surface of the moon yesterday, explaining that during its 12-minute landing period it would have no contact with Earth.
After it touched down, Chang’e 3′s solar panels, which are used to generate power from sunlight, unfurled and the spacecraft began transmitting pictures back to Earth.
Although China’s military-backed space programme lags significantly behind those of the United States and Russia in technology and experience, the country’s rocket engineers have made considerable progress in recent years. The first Chinese astronaut was sent into space in 2003 and in its most recent manned space mission, in June this year, three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory, part of Beijing’s quest to build a working space station by 2020.
“They are taking their time with getting to know about how to fly humans into space, how to build space stations – how to explore the solar system, especially the moon and Mars,” Bond said. “They are making good strides, and I think over the next 10, 20 years they’ll certainly be rivalling Russia and America in this area, and maybe overtaking them in some areas.”
The success of the Chang’e mission is also a major boost for China in its bid to become the dominant space power in the east. India is also a major contender in this competition – it currently has an unmanned probe heading towards Mars – while South Korea is developing its own space launcher. However, with successes both in manned and lunar missions now accomplished, China is looking a clear leader to become the key space power of the far east.