China’s first moon rover “Jade Rabbit,” named after a mythological animal living on the moon in an ancient Chinese tale, will be heading to the moon next month, Xinhua said.
“China has chosen the name ‘Yutu’ [Jade Rabbit] for its first moon rover after a worldwide online poll challenged people to come up with names,” the state-owned news agency said.
The name was announced at a press conference by Li Benzheng, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Chinese lunar programme, in Beijing on Tuesday.
“Yutu is a symbol of kindness, purity and agility, and is identical to the moon rover in both outlook and connotation. Yutu also reflects China’s peaceful use of space,” Li, was quoted as saying.
Chinese social media users welcomed the name on Tuesday. “I look forward to the jade rabbit visiting the moon palace, go Chinese aerospace!” wrote one poster on Sina Weibo, a service similar to Twitter.
The name was chosen by some 650,000 people in the online poll. Some 3.4 million people took part in the vote. Other names included Qian Xuesen, a scientist known as “the father of the Chinese space programme,” and “Tansuo” or explorer.
The Chinese space programme has previously resorted to mythology in christening its lunar probe Chang’e, which is named after the fabled lunar deity.
Jade Rabbit is part of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe, which is scheduled to be launched with a Long March 3B carrier rocket early next month, due to land on the moon by the middle of December.
China has previously sent two probes to orbit the moon, with controllers sending the first of them crashing into the lunar surface at the end of its mission.
Chang’e-1, was launched in 2007. The next, Chang’e-2, began its journey three years later and after orbiting the moon it was sent on a mission into deep space to monitor an asteroid.
That probe is expected to travel as far as 300 million km from Earth, the longest voyage of any Chinese spacecraft, Xinhua quoted an official as saying.
The name comes from an ancient Chinese myth about a white rabbit which lives on the moon as the pet of Chang’e, a lunar goddess who swallowed an immortality pill.
The rabbit’s first mention in Chinese literature dates back to the poem Heavenly Questions, allegedly written by the Warring States period poet Qu Yuan, said Dr Isaac Yue, an assistant professor at Hong Kong University who teaches Chinese mythology.
“One line of the poem said that on the moon there is a toad and a rabbit. Later, there are additions to the myth, one of which is the rabbit making herbal medicine and being a companion of Chang’e,” he said. “The other one is a story of Buddhist origin, according to which the moon rabbit jumped into a fire so that the old man could eat its meat and recover.”
“The moon rabbit has this cultural significance as a sacrificer for the good of something else,” he continued. “They already used the Chang’e motif, and between the toad and the rabbit it was clear that the rabbit would be more popular.
“I couldn’t think of any better name.”
Ouyang Ziyuan, head of the moon rover project, told Xinhua that the ancient beliefs had their origins in the marks left by impacts on the lunar landscape.
“There are several black spots on the moon’s surface, our ancient people imagined they were a moon palace, osmanthus trees, and a jade rabbit,” he said.
Beijing sees its military-run space programme as a marker of its rising global stature and growing technological might, as well as the ruling Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
It has ambitious plans to create a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send a human to the moon, but its technology currently lags behind the expertise of the United States and Russia.
China showed off a model of the gold-coloured moon rover, with six wheels and wing-like solar panels earlier this month.
The vehicle can climb inclines of up to 30 degrees and travel up to 200 metres per hour, its designers said.
However there are already concerns that the mission could harm an ongoing American moon mission. Nasa’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer - nicknamed Laddie - is already orbiting the moon measuring its exosphere.
Clive Neal of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana told SPACE.com, an industry publication, that the Chinese mission could compromise the US measurements. US Congress barred Nasa scientists from coordinating with Chinese counterparts unless they are specifically authorised.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse