China will launch its first moon rover mission Monday, state media report, marking a major milestone in an ambitious space program that has seen rapid progress in a relatively short time.
The Chang’e-3 rocket carrying the moon rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, will blast off at 1:30 a.m. local time (Sunday 12:30 p.m. EST), from a launching pad at southwest China, said the official news agency Xinhua. If successful, China will be the third country to soft-land a spacecraft on moon’s surface after the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
"The Chang'e 3 is set to be launched for its moon mission from the Xichang Satellite launch Center on Dec. 2," state broadcaster CCTV tweeted on Saturday.
According to the plan, the spacecraft will land on the moon's Sinus Iridium landmark in mid-December, after six stages of deceleration to descend from lunar orbit to the surface. Chang’e-3 is equipped with technologies that would help it to hover over any obstacles for a safe soft-landing.
“Chang’e-3, on the other hand, can accurately survey landforms at the landing site and identify the safest spots on which to land,” Xinhua reported.
Yutu is equipped with four cameras and two mechanized “legs” that can be used for digging and collecting soil samples from the lunar surface. It can climb inclines of up to 30 degrees and travel up to 200 meters per hour, Agence France-Presse reported, citing officials of the moon rover project.
The six-wheeled autonomous lunar rover was named Yutu, a mythological jade rabbit, based on an online poll in which 3 million people participated. According to Chinese folklore, the jade rabbit lives as the pet of goddess Chang’e on the moon.
Although China is far behind the established space superpowers the U.S. and Russia, the nation has made rapid progress in its space mission in a relatively short time. China successfully completed its fifth manned space mission in June, and aims to build a working space station by 2020.
China’s moon mission took off in 2007, when it launched its first moon orbiter, Chang’e-1, named after a Chinese lunar goddess. Chang’e-1 collected data and images of the surface from its lunar orbit, before crash-landing to the surface.
Chang’e-2, which was launched on Oct. 1, 2010, verified key technology and gathered technical information required for the soft landing. After completion of the mission, Chang’e-2 is moving deep into space, and presently is 60 million kilometers away from Earth.