China Shoots for the Moon

A giant crater called Sinus Iridum area of the Moon - i where China's new Chang'e-3 lander/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
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.

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