China's Chang'e 3 lunar mission got off to a successful start on December 2 when a rocket carrying a moon lander and rover blasted off from Xichang, in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
Four days later the lander and rover started orbiting the moon, and a "soft landing" – one that allows equipment to touch down unharmed– is expected in mid-December.
The landing in the moon's Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum, will be the first since 1976, when the Russians landed a probe. Assuming the landing is successful, the main task of the mission involves the Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, lunar rover.
Some critics have questioned the value of pursuing a feat accomplished by the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago. They wonder if China's lunar program is more about prestige than science and technology.
While China's mission to the moon has indeed benefitted from the experience of countries that have preceded it, it still marks progress in China's space exploration efforts. The Chang'e 3 mission is also an improvement over the first two missions, which orbited the moon as a prelude to landing this time around.
The Chang'e 3 mission used a Long March 3B rocket, which featured enhanced first stage and booster equipment developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology. The mission also showcases new precision orbit and landing technologies.
The three-month mission will be powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which converts decaying radioactive material into electricity. This will allow the mission to use a battery of scientific instruments and cameras.
One of the main scientific instruments of the mission is the Lunar Ultraviolet Telescope. It will be the first long-term observatory based on the moon and will be used to observe galaxies and other celestial objects.
The data related to galaxies will be shared with the International Lunar Observatory Association and the China National Astronomical Observatories, which is under the China Academy of Sciences.
Another instrument is an extreme ultra-violet camera that will be pointed at the Earth.
The moon landing itself is an achievement. The Chang'e 3 will first slow so it can descend to 15 kilometers above the lunar surface. The landing will have to be able to identify and avoid large obstacles as it progresses.
The engine of the Chang'e 3 will shut when it hits an altitude of about 4 meters. Then the probe will be allowed to gently fall to the surface. A special landing camera, radar guns and laser rangefinder will assist in the descent.
After special monitoring tasks are performed, the Jade Rabbit rover will be released. It will spend 14 days collecting data on the topography and geology of the moon, collect lunar materials and survey available resources.
The rover will explore an area of 3 square kilometers and travel about 10 km in total.
The Jade Rabbit itself is 1.5 meters long, 1.1 meters wide and weighs 140 kg. It can climb 20 degree slopes and overcome 20 centimeter obstacles. It is smaller than its Soviet and American predecessors, but more agile.
The Jade Rabbit will also be able to perform more scientific tasks. The rover will be capable of real time video transmission, and be able to dig and perform simple analysis of soil samples. It also carries a radar unit that can penetrate 30 meters into the moon.
The Chang'e moon mission may be attempting a challenge completed nearly 40 years ago, but it does mark a step forward for China's space program. Not only is it untrue that China's space program is just a copy of old Soviet technology, but Chinese technologies have already surpassed their Russian and American counterparts in some areas. (Caixin)