Jade Rabbit lunar rover

China to launch lunar rock-collecting probe by 2017

Date for planned Chang'e-5 mission brought forward a year but technological hurdles remain

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 6:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 10:14am

China plans to launch another mission to the moon to bring rock samples back to earth by 2017, a year earlier than experts had predicted.

Wu Zhijun, a spokesman for the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, told a press conference in Beijing on Monday that the Chang’e-5 mission would be launched in four years’ time.

“After the success of Chang’e-3, the lunar exploration project enters the third phrase, the main objective of which is to bring samples back,” he said.

The landing module of the nation’s latest lunar mission touched down on the surface of the moon on Saturday. The six-wheeled rover, Yutu or “Jade Rabbit”, successfully left the landing module and rolled on to the surface of the moon the next day and started beaming photographs back to earth. China has become the third nation after the United States and Russia to land a probe successfully on the moon.

Video: China's lunar rover makes tracks on the moon

Wu said several technical challenges had to be overcome in the Chang’e-5 mission, including how to blast a vehicle away from the lunar surface, docking with a command module in orbit around the moon and also returning the spacecraft to earth. “None of these has been done by our country before,” Wu said.

Experts had predicted the mission would be launched by 2018 because a new and more powerful rocket was needed to put the spacecraft in orbit and a launch centre is to be built in Hainan , neither of which are ready. Zhang Yuhua , the deputy commander of the Chang’e-5 project, told China National Radio earlier this month the launch was scheduled for 2018.

A Chang’e-4 mission will also put a probe on the moon in the coming years and carry out experiments and test technology that will be critical in the next lunar landing, space authorities have said.

Dr Morris Jones, an Australian-based space analyst, said he was impressed by the technical ability shown in the current lunar mission.

“I think one of the greatest innovations was the ramp system used to convey the rover from the top of the lander to the lunar surface,” he said. “It was a complex operation. This is a unique system, different from other landers, and it worked well,” he said.

Zou Yongliao , payload scientist for the Chang’e-3 mission, said they had so far started five out of the eight large, scientific instruments on the landing craft and lunar rover and scientists were pleased with the data sent back to earth.

“We are using ground-penetration radar to obtain information on the moon’s sub-surface structure. We started last night and the results are excellent,” he said in the same press conference.

Also activated was an optical telescope mounted on top of the landing module. “The images are very clear,” Zou said.

Other experiments to be carried out by the lunar mission in the coming weeks include observations of the earth’s higher atmosphere.

“China has put up such a good research platform. I hope scientists can make use of the data and make some fundamental contributions to the science of the moon,” Zou said.