As Rover Lands, China Joins Moon Club
China on Saturday became the third country to steer a spacecraft onto the moon after its unmanned Chang’e-3 probe settled onto the Bay of Rainbows, state-run television reported.
The United States and the Soviet Union are the other countries to have accomplished so-called soft landings on the moon — in which a craft can work after landing — and 37 years have passed since the last such mission.
The successful arrival of the Chang’e-3 after a 13-day journey from Earth was reported on Chinese state television.
Chinese news websites displayed what they said was a photograph from the craft of the moon’s surface. At the time of the last soft landing, by the Soviet Union in 1976, Mao Zedong lay a month from death and China was in the twilight of his chaotic Cultural Revolution. Now China, much richer and stronger, aspires to become a globally respected power, and the government sees a major presence in space as a key to acquiring technological prowess, military strength and sheer status.
Chinese media celebrated the landing as a demonstration of the country’s growing scientific stature. Television reports showed engineers at the mission control center in Beijing crying, embracing and taking pictures of one another on their cellphones.
“The dream of the Chinese people across thousands of years of landing on the moon has finally been realized with Chang’e,” said the China News Service, a state-run news agency. “By successfully joining the international deep-space exploration club, we finally have the right to share the resources on the moon with developed countries.”
The Chang’e-3 landing craft carried a solar-powered, robotic rover called the Jade Rabbit, or Yutu in Mandarin Chinese, which was to emerge several hours later to begin exploring Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, a relatively smooth plain formed from solidified lava.
According to a Chinese legend, Chang’e is a moon goddess, accompanied by a Jade Rabbit that can brew potions that offer immortality.
“It’s a very ambitious mission in the sense that it’s a rover with a fair amount of instruments on it,” said Andrew Chaikin, a space historian and an expert on lunar travel. The instruments include radar to gather information about what lies as deep as 300 feet below the surface, Chinese space scientists have said.
“There is the potential that some really interesting science could come out of this,” Mr. Chaikin said.
But the mission also embodies China’s broader ambitions in space, other experts said. The Chang’e-3 mission is honing technology for future missions while also emphasizing exploration. The landing craft appears capable of carrying a payload more than a dozen times the weight of the 309-pound rover, Paul D. Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said in an email.
“Although it will do some new science, its real value is to flight-qualify a new and potentially powerful lunar surface payload delivery system,” Dr. Spudis said.
A later Chang’e mission, sometime before 2020, is intended to bring back rocks and other samples from the moon, and that will need a larger craft capable of sending a vehicle back to Earth. That mission will also need a more powerful launch rocket, which China is also developing.
Within a decade, China could also become the only country with an operating space station. The International Space Station, which has been open to astronauts from 15 countries, is due to be decommissioned by 2020, and China’s own, much smaller station could be ready to go up about the same time, if preparations go smoothly. China is not among the countries allowed to use the international station.
Despite its benign name, China’s Jade Rabbit rover could kindle anxieties among some American politicians and policy makers that the United States risks losing its pre-eminence in space in coming decades. China’s opaque space bureaucracy is overseen by the military, and that has magnified wariness.
Legislation passed by Congress in 2011 bars NASA from bilateral contacts with China, although multilateral contacts are not proscribed.
In the past, some Chinese space engineers have also enthusiastically endorsed eventually taking astronauts to the moon and back, which would make China the second country, after the United States, to achieve that feat. China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003.
A policy paper in 2011 said China would “conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing,” but the government has not made any decision on a manned mission, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the United States Naval War College in Rhode Island who researches China’s space activities.
“Certainly, they are putting all the building blocks in place so that if they make that policy decision, they can move forward,” said Professor Johnson-Freese. “But the Chinese are not risk-takers. They are not going to approve that program until they are sure they are capable of all those building blocks.”