Superpower China lands a robot on the Moon
December 15, 2013 - 2:25PM
Shanghai: China became the first country to "soft-land" a spacecraft on the moon in nearly four decades on Saturday, taking the emerging superpower a step closer to putting a man on the lunar surface.
The unmanned Chang'e-3 craft began a controlled descent towards an area known as the Bay of Rainbows about 9pm Beijing time (midnight, AEDT) and landed about 11 minutes later, the Chinese said.
"It landed on the moon," state media announced in a live broadcast. "Chang'e has landed."
Television footage showed dozens of jubilant white-coated technicians and scientists at the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Centre clapping and embracing each other. Experts told China Central Television (CCTV), the state television network, that the landing represented a giant leap in Beijing's push to send astronauts to the moon.
China, India and the US have fired or crash-landed probes on the lunar surface in recent years but this was the first soft - or controlled - landing since 1976, when the former Soviet Union's Luna-24 landed there.
Yang Yuguang, an expert from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, said: "Soft-landing technology is a critical technology necessary for the future manned lunar missions and, in the far future, we should establish [lunar] bases and utilise resources on the moon."
Initial reports suggested that the lunar probe had successfully deployed its wing-like solar panels. On Sunday the spacecraft will deploy a six-wheeled moon rover called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit. Its name comes from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living on the moon and was chosen following an online poll of 3.4 million voters. The robot will photograph and study the moon's surface using four cameras and two mechanical legs for digging, while the stationary "lander" will conduct studies of its own. "The lander will work for a year while the rover is expected to function for three months," CCTV said.
Chang'e-3 was launched on December 2 from a military base in south-west China. Before departure, the 140 kilogram Jade Rabbit robot underwent a lengthy testing phase in the Kumtag desert, a barren, rainless corner of western China known for its fine sands that was selected because of its similarity to the moon's surface. Professor Fu Song, from Tsinghua University's School of Aerospace, said the landing would "pave the way for further knowledge of the moon".
"A soft landing requires very skilful technical manoeuvring," he said. "It is not easy."
Experts believe China's space program is primarily about underlining its growing economic, scientific and geopolitical power.
"I think in space probably their motivation is very largely the same as it was years ago for the Americans and the Soviet Union: a demonstration of their technical prowess," said Ken Pounds, a professor of space physics at the University of Leicester and one of the pioneers of British space research.
"What the Chinese are showing more than any other nation - the Russians, the Indians even and certainly the Americans - is the determination to actually get on with space exploration, and they are making quite rapid progress."
Jiao Weixin, from Peking University's school of earth and space sciences, admitted that a successful landing was a "symbol of state power" that would boost "China's international status".
"But its main purpose is not political as it is not Cold War era," he said. "The US and former Soviet Union did it decades ago, so this is not about competition, but simply making a contribution as far as a major country can and should."
One of the mission's goals is to hunt for precious natural resources that could help to feed China's insatiable hunger for raw materials. The country sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation after the old Soviet Union and the US to achieve manned space travel independently. It has not released a precise timeline for its future moon exploration plans but state media has said it plans to test an "experimental spacecraft" that can bring samples back from the moon before 2015.
Professor Jiao said he expected Beijing to return an unmanned lunar mission to Earth by 2017 and to build a space station by 2020.
Professor Pounds said the next logical next step would be to send astronauts to the moon, probably in the mid-2020s. "It is a big further step, of course, to put a human on the moon but the technology is the same. Obviously, the challenges are more extreme since you need to take more care of a human than a robot. In a decade or more they will definitely be planning to send humans. That is the normal timescale."
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