China’s lunar lander -- Chang’e-3 -- was launched into space yesterday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center aboard a Long March-3B rocket. This marks the latest step in China’s almost flawless space program, Nature reports.
The spacecraft is expected to enter lunar orbit by the end of this week. And by mid-December, it’s scheduled to use braking rockets to lower itself gently onto the plains of Sinus Iridum, a broad swathe of lava flows on the near side of the moon, Nature explains.
It will be the first time a Chinese spacecraft soft-lands on the surface of an extraterrestrial body. Once on the surface, the lander will stay in one spot, using its optical telescopes and an extreme ultraviolet camera for astronomical observations, IEEE Spectrum explains.
Meanwhile, a solar-powered, two-winged, six-wheeled rover -- named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit (pictured) -- will explore the vicinity for three months. Its gear, as described by Nature:
Panoramic and other cameras will photograph the surroundings.
An α-particle X-ray spectrometer on a robotic arm will probe the soil’s chemical composition.
Ground-penetrating radar will scan the moon’s subsurface to depths of 100 meters or more to study soil and rock structures.
If Chang’e-3 arrives safely, that will mean China, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. will be the only nations to have successfully landed exploratory craft on the moon.
To be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot from my childhood about Jade Rabbit, the companion of the moon goddess, Chang’e. (That’s probably because my cousin was born during the Year of the Rabbit in 1975, so I’ve always associated jade rabbits with presents for him.) I do, however, try to eat mooncakes every Mid-Autumn Festival -- which I recently realized has to do with Chang’e. What do you know. According to Chinese media, 650,000 people voted for the name Yutu.
A little history and a look to the future:
In the early 1990s, money began to flow into China’s work on crewed space flights -- which included putting people into orbit and docking two craft in space. The push for a parallel program in lunar exploration resulted in a schedule of missions named after the goddess, Nature explains.
Lunar orbiter Chang’e-1 was launched in 2007. It mapped the entire moon and sent back 1.37 terabytes of data before it deliberately crashed in 2009.
Chang’e-2 was launched in 2010 to make higher-resolution maps. It’s now a manmade asteroid, 60 million kilometers away.
China lost its first and only Mars probe soon after launch in 2011.
Depending on how Chang’e-3 fares, the National Space Administration may launch an almost identical lunar rover and lander pair, Chang’e-4, to another spot.
In 2017, there will likely be a robotic mission to bring samples of lunar material back to earth.
By the 2020s, the lunar and crewed objectives of China’s space-flight program will likely merge and send a taikonaut to walk on the moon.
Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York.
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She writes for SmartPlanet and is not an employee of CBS.