China is celebrating the overnight launch of its first lunar mission which, if successful, will mark the first soft landing on the moon since 1976. In doing so, China could enter an elite club of lunar explorers – third behind only the United States and the Soviet Union.
“The Chang’e probe on its way to the moon, of course, is a symbol of China’s national prowess,” Zhang Zhenzhong, director of China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center, told state-run CCTV following the liftoff. “Let’s all work together … to make more efforts in space exploration and realize the Chinese dream.”
A specially-modified Long March 3B rocket blasted off at 1:30 am Beijing local time from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the country’s southern Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. It carried the Chang’e 3 moon lander and a rover called Yutu – Chinese for “jade rabbit.”
More than 3.4 million Chinese citizens voted for the rover’s name in an online poll. According to Chinese mythology, a rabbit lives on the moon mixing elixirs of immortality for the lunar goddess Chang’e.
The probe is expected to enter lunar orbit on December 6 and touch down on the moon’s surface sometime in mid-December. It is heading for an area of the moon called the Sinus Iridum (Latin for Bay of Rainbows), which is largely devoid of natural features that could inhibit the landing and subsequent rover mission.
Once on the moon’s surface, Yutu will “survey its geological structure and surface substances, while looking for natural resources,” explained Xinhua. It is equipped with a ground-penetrating radar system – the first to be installed on a moon rover – and is capable of traveling at 200 meters per hour. Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute, the rover’s creator, added that the 150-centimeter tall, 120-kilogram vehicle could climb slopes up to 30 degrees.
Yutu’s data collecting will last for at least three months and serve as the second phase of a three-phase unmanned lunar exploration program. The final phase, expected to take place in 2020, will attempt to bring rocks and soil from the moon back to earth. If that mission also proves successful, it will open the doors for an eventual manned lunar mission.
Some U.S. scientists are concerned about the Chang’e 3’s timing. According to CNN, the probe’s descent could create a plume of dust that may interfere with current NASA research.
A successful moon landing is a surefire way for China to prove its technological prowess – a bold statement alongside heated territorial disputes with multiple Asian neighbors.
“The launch comes at a time when the Asian superpower is asserting itself in other areas, such as control of airspace over the East China Sea,” said the BBC. “China considers its space program a symbol of its rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as of the Communist Party’s success in reversing the fortunes of the once impoverished nation.”