Jade Rabbit lunar rover

Chinese lunar rover looks too much like Nasa's Opportunity, say scientists

Chinese design plays it safe but ends up looking too much like Nasa's Mars vehicle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 October, 2013, 3:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 10:29am

The launch of China's most ambitious lunar probe, scheduled for sometime in December, will likely be a proud moment for many in the nation.

But for some scientists, at least one of whom was directly involved in the project, the event will be frustrating.

The rover, they say, shows little technological innovation, and borrows heavily from American and Soviet-era designs.

The rover, they note, looks similar to Nasa's Opportunity, which has roamed Mars for nearly a decade. Both feature a flat back with solar panels, a long neck fronted by cameras and a robotic arm set at the front chest.

Only their wheels are different. For that part, the Chinese rover seems to have borrowed heavily from the Lunokhod 1 - the first lunar rover launched by the Soviet Union in 1970.

Some scientists directly involved in the rover design project said the Chinese version was derivative.

"There is no denying the similarities," Professor Wen Guilin from Hunan University in Changsha told the South China Morning Post.

Wen said the Chinese vehicle "borrowed heavily from other countries, in particularly the United States".

"A lot of things have been drawn from the reliable and successful design of the [American] Mars rover," he said.

If the Chinese design lacks originality, it is not for want of trying. In 2005, the government asked all qualified universities and institutes to propose designs for the rover. It said the winner would be chosen through a fair, transparent process.

It was the first time that the secretive space agency - run by the military - had invited civilian scientists to participate in a major exploration programme.

Many top universities set up special teams of their best researchers, who proposed creative rover designs. Wen's own team, for instance, offered a design with only four wheels but with a greater ability to manoeuvre over rough terrain.

Civilian scientists were disappointed when authorities decided on a design they felt drew heavily on the American design.

Zhu Jihong, a professor of robotics who entered the competition on behalf of Tsinghua University, said the outcome had dampened Chinese scientists' enthusiasm for innovation.

"In the beginning they said they encouraged original thinking. In the end they did not even bother to make an announcement or give us any feedback," he said. "We will not participate in anything that involves the military in the future."

Professor Cao Qixin, whose team from the Jiaotong University in Shanghai submitted a spider-like design, said he was not surprised by the decision.

Unlike the space programmes in the US and other Western countries, China's programme was not focused on pushing technological limits, Cao said.

"You see other countries have failed in their space programmes. But Chinese missions are almost always perfect," he said, "We only trust tried and proven technology and equipment. They may not be advanced, but they guarantee you success."

Wen, however, defended the government's design decision. "This is a big project, where creativity has to give way to practicality," he said.