In a major leap forward for its ambitious space program, China landed its unmanned spacecraft Chang’e 3 on the moon this past Saturday, December 14. The successful landing made China only the third nation in the world (after the United States and the former Soviet Union) to make a soft landing on the lunar surface. The last space mission to land on the moon was the Soviet Union's Luna 24 probe in August 1976, which touched down four years after the United States launched its manned Apollo 17 mission.
Chang’e 3 blasted off from Xichang Province in the south of China on December 2 Beijing time, aboard a Chinese-developed Long March 3B rocket.
About five days later, it arrived in the moon’s orbit, some 60 miles (100 km) from its surface, and began preparing for landing. During the descent, a camera aboard the spacecraft took 59 photos of the moon, including a view from the lunar surface just after Chang’e touched down in Sinus Iridum, the Bay of Rainbows. This flat volcanic plain is part of a larger feature, Mare Imbrium, which forms the right eye of the so-called “Man in the Moon.”
The landing took place at 8:11 am EST on Saturday, December 14, or late Saturday night at mission control center in Beijing. The following day, the six-wheeled lunar rover Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” deployed from Chang’e 3. It will patrol the moon’s surface and study the lunar crust as well as its soil and rocks for at least three months. The rover’s name, chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters, comes from an ancient Chinese myth about the lunar goddess Chang’e, who kept a rabbit as a pet.
Weighing in at 260 pounds (120 kg), Jade Rabbit can reportedly climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 660 feet (200 meters) per hour. Its two mechanical legs and ground-penetrating radar enable the rover to test soil samples to a depth of 30 meters. Both Jade Rabbit and Chang’e are powered by solar panels, but are also believed to carry radioisotope heating units (RHUs), which contain plutonium-238, in order to keep warm. Temperatures during lunar nights can drop as low as -180°C (-292°F).
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 and has quickly built up its space program since then, though it still lags behind the United States and Russia in terms of both technology and experience. According to the Pentagon, the country conducted 16 space launches in 2012. China’s space success has been a source of great national pride; the official Xinhua News agency reported that both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were on hand at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center to celebrate the announcement of the successful Chang’e 3 landing.
The Chang’e 3 mission represents the second phase of the country’s three-part moon exploration program: orbiting, landing and returning to Earth. Chinese scientists say the goals of the current mission are to test new technologies, gather scientific data and build expertise, as well as scout for mineral resources that might one day be mined. The Chang’e lander will operate on the moon for a year, after which the third and final phase of the program–a lunar probe that will bring samples of lunar soil and rock back to Earth–is planned for 2017. On a larger scale, China expects to open a permanent space station in Earth’s orbit by 2020 (replacing the Tiangong 1 prototype space station that opened in 2011), and send an astronaut to the moon after that.