China’s Jade Rabbit moon rover, or Yutu, has begun its lunar probe by rolling down the lunar surface and driving through the dark soil, leaving imprints, as shown in images released by China's official news agency, Xinhua.
The Chang’e-3 rocket carrying Jade Rabbit soft-landed on the moon on Saturday, marking a major milestone in China’s ambitious space program, which has seen rapid progress in a relatively short time. The Chang’e-3 was launched on Dec. 2.
The six-wheeled Yutu, after descending from the lander, moved to a spot about 9 meters north of the lander, from which point Yutu and the lander photographed each other and sent back live pictures to China’s space mission on Earth, Xinhua reported.
The Web-based China Network Television, or CNTV, released a video of Chang’e -3’s soft landing on the moon on YouTube.
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 at speeds up to 200 meters an hour, Agence France-Presse reported, citing the project's officials.
Chinese leaders and the country's national media hailed the lunar mission as a success, and the government said it plans to launch the Chang’e-5, the third phase of China’s lunar mission, in 2017. According to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, Chang’e-5 will conduct an unmanned sampling of the moon's surface and bring samples back to Earth.
"The development of Chang'e-5 is proceeding smoothly,” Wu Zhijian, an administration spokesman said, according to a Xinhua report. “The program's third phase will be more difficult because many breakthroughs must be made in key technologies such as moon-surface takeoff, sampling encapsulation, rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, and high-speed Earth reentry, which are all new to China."
The Chang’e-4, expected to launched soon, will provide a backup for Chang’e-3 to verify the key technologies used in the latter.
With the successful launch, China became the third country to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The spacecraft will spend a year on the satellite and the moon rover will explore the lunar surface for about three months.
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 on the moon's surface.
Chang’e-2, which was launched on Oct. 1, 2010, verified key technology and gathered technical information required for the soft landing. After the mission's completion, Chang’e-2 began traveling deep into space, and is currently about 60 million kilometers away from Earth.