Changing Planet

China Shoots for the Moon

A giant moon crater called Sinus Iridum, where China’s new Chang’e-3 rover mission is aiming to touch down in mid-December. Arrow shows location of Soviet Lunokhod 1 rover, which was the first remote-controlled vehicle to land on a celestial body, on November 17, 1970. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

China is aiming to become only the third nation ever, after Russia and the U.S., to land a spacecraft on the moon. 

The Asian nation successfully launched its Chang’e-3 probe, its third lunar mission, early on Monday morning, Beijing time. The spacecraft is set to make the first soft landing on the moon in nearly four decades, on or around December 14.

The Chang’e-3  is named after the Chinese goddess of the moon. It follows on the heels of two previous lunar orbiting missions launched by China since 2007, ones that surveyed and mapped the entire moon, including a potential future landing site for the current mission.

The four-legged lander—the size of a sports utility vehicle—is now on course to arrive in lunar orbit by the end of this week. After firing its rockets to slow its speed and go into orbit around the moon, it will next initiate a landing in mid-December, and finally release a 140-kilogram (300-pound), six-wheeled rover on the moon’s surface.

The chosen landing site will be within the basin of the 250-mile-wide (400-kilometer-wide) Sinus Iridium, or Bay of Rainbows, a large, flat crater visible in the upper-left area of the full moon as seen from Earth. This unexplored region offers the potential for discovery of interesting geological features, clear driving for the rover, and grand views of steep crater walls.

Once the lander safely touches down using retro-rockets, a ramp will unfurl that will allow the solar-powered robotic rover, dubbed Yutu (meaning Jade Rabbit) in a public naming campaign, to drive onto the surface. Expectations are that the rover will be able to travel up to six miles (ten kilometers) and function for three months, while the lander should survive for at least one year.

The advanced rover is equipped with a suite of cameras and ground-penetrating radar. It sports a robotic arm outfitted with an alpha particle x-ray spectrometer that is capable of sniffing out the chemical makeup of rocks and soil.

This mission marks China’s first attempt to land on another celestial body. It not only looks to expand our understanding of the moon’s geologic history, but also aims to impress the global community with China’s technological prowess.

Thanks to intense government financing, China has been systematically building up its space program for the past two decades. Among the Chinese program’s accomplishments are human missions to Earth orbit, an orbiting space lab, and robotic probes sent to the moon and Mars.

But unlike fellow Asian powerhouse nation, India, which appears to be concentrating on scientific missions, China’s long-range plans appear to revolve more around laying the groundwork for human-led space exploration. Work is already under way for more complex follow-up lunar missions that could help set the stage for Chinese astronauts to possibly land on the moon as early as 2025, according to some space industry analysts.

Meanwhile, according to reports, some NASA scientists are worried that Chang’e-3’s propellant, used to place it into lunar orbit and descend to the surface, may adversely affect data collected by NASA’s currently orbiting LADEE mission, which is designed to study the lunar dust environment.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.
  • Robert C

    Do you really think it is a good idea to send a rocket to the moon with Made in China stamped on the side? What if they didn’t steal the right plans from the US? Then you have to count on the Ruskies for the rocket plans. Those Chinese cosmonauts are not getting paid enough!

  • BruceYuan

    The article is very vividly. However, I think it a little simple. Hence the reporter could add some knowlegdes of the space.

  • james liu

    NASA believes she has created the world most powerful technology, it is unfair to blame the Chinese Moon Rover will cause her recent sent Spy Drone circuiting moon orbit will lose any data collection or even malfunction.
    Let’s hope the Chinese Moon Rover will succeed a soft landing n discover something rarest or even Alien mystery.

  • Steve

    @Robert C
    Typical American citizen comment. Let them have their success, God knows you Yanks aren’t going anywhere..

  • Paul Valentine

    I hope it fails.

  • awe

    When they make these kind of images nobody will believe the Chinese in 2025.

  • Paul duke

    please don’t tell me we’ll be carving that up next in land disputes.

  • David

    You Unfair people let other countries be given the same credit
    For their achievements GOD created mankind EQUAL

  • Charles Pickens

    I wish the West would stop being critical and pool their resources and knowledge to help us all better understand our galaxy and the other billions of stars and planets in the universe.

  • Meg

    God lord, stop making the rest of us embarrassed about being from America ! We are not the only nation on the planet allowed in space. It’s all open game past our atmosphere ! Now if only we could all play nice and collaborate all the data collected by each country then we’d take leaps, not baby steps.

  • Laurent

    For this mission, China is helped by the European Space Agency. Actually, after the liftoff of the China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft, the ESA’s network of tracking stations is providing a crucial support during all the Lunar cruise of the spacecraft. You could find more details there –>

  • Gino

    i do like that china has sent rockets t to the moon,bringing them a step forward to development

  • AwE130

    Does the Chinese moon lander carry a Retro Reflector to range at?

  • AwE130

    Chinese images from the moon, indicates life on the moon.

  • AwE130

    The purple area seen on the Chinese images from the moon also seen by Buzz Aldrin in 1969. NASA was quick to tell the world it was a joke from Buzz. Did Buzz Aldrin want to tell us something?

  • 丁浩宸

    A lot of Chinese sad it is useless.

  • AwE130

    The first Jade Rabbit images are looking the same as the 1966 Surveyor 1 images?

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