China moon rover is ‘most crucial challenge for us’, says chief designer

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 9:31am

China’s first-ever moon rover, launched on Monday, is expected to enter lunar orbit in five days before it makes a soft-landing on the moon in mid-December, which will make China the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to do so.

The Chang’e-3 lunar probe, including the moon rover named Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit” in a nod to Chinese folklore, was successfully launched from the Xichang satellite launch centre in China’s southwestern Sichuan province at 1.30am local time on Monday. It is expected to enter lunar orbit on December 6 and soft-land on the moon surface in December 14 after several stages of deceleration.

The soft-landing will be the most difficult part of the mission, said Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar probe programme. “To descend from a height of 15 kilometres and land onto a chosen landing area safely within several hundred seconds, that is a brand-new challenge and the most crucial one for us,” he said.

Yutu, a six-wheeled driving rover capable of travelling at a speed of 200 metres per hour, will survey the moon’s geological structure, look for natural resources and conduct astrophysical observations upon successful landing and departure from the lander.

Chang’e-3 marks the second phase of China’s 3-step lunar probe programme consisting of orbiting the moon, landing on the moon, and returning samples from the moon by 2020. Wu said in an interview with Xinhua that 80 per cent of the technology used in Chang’e-3 is completely new compared to Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2, lunar-orbiting spacecrafts sent in 2007 and 2010 as part of the first step of the programme.

It is the first time for China to send a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body as well as the first time in nearly 40 years for any country to touch down on the moon. The last moon landing was the former Soviet Union’s robotic Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976.

Previous probes showed the moon rich in Helium-3 and other elements scarce on earth, more than enough to solve the whole world’s energy problems, but current technology is still far from being able to collect and return those substances to earth, Wu said. He added that China next aims to bring back two kilogrammes of moon rock samples in an unmanned mission before 2020.

The Chang’e missions are named after the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology and the rover after her rabbit pet Yutu.

Internet users in China expressed pride and excitement in the hours after Chang’e-3’s successful launch. “This makes Chinese people get excited and forget their own bad situation,” one poster wrote on Sina Weibo.

“Every time they launch a rocket, it’s very moving,” said another. “Soon, Chinese people will be able to go to the moon.”

China sees its space programme as a symbol of its growing international status and technological advancement, as well as of the Communist Party’s success in reversing the fortunes of the once impoverished nation. Since 2003 China has sent 10 astronauts into space and launched an orbiting space module, Tiangong-1.

The country is looking for the possibility to send the first astronauts to set foot on the moon between 2025 and 2030, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Space Technology was quoted by the state-run Global Times as saying. The government has not formally set a date for manned landing.

Additional reporting by AFP