China Launches Chang’e 3 on Country’s First Mission to Land on the Moon

Liftoff of China's Chang’e 3 & their "Jade Rabbit" Yutu rover to the surface of the moon from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China.  Image Credit: CCTV
Liftoff of China’s Chang’e 3 and their “Jade Rabbit” Yutu rover to the surface of the Moon from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. Image Credit: CCTV

Today, under cover of darkness, China successfully launched their first robotic lunar rover atop a powerful Long March-3B rocket from the country’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. The mission, which is named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon in ancient myth, would make China the third country (after the United States and Soviet Union) to land on the Moon. The last lunar landing was performed by the Soviet Union on the Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976, and the United States remains the only country to have ever landed humans on the lunar surface (last human mission to the Moon was NASA’s Apollo 17 in December 1972).

China, however, has ambitious plans to join America as having landed humans on the lunar surface within the next decade.

The launch countdown appeared to have gone as smoothly as possible, and mother nature provided ideal conditions for a 12:30 p.m. EST (1:30 a.m. Monday local time) launch attempt. The launch itself also appeared to have gone as expected, and within minutes after liftoff the Chang’e 3 lunar lander and its six-wheeled rover, named Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” successfully separated from the rocket’s third stage as it coasted into a beautiful sunrise roughly 300 kilometers over the Pacific Ocean.

An artist's concept of the Chang'e 3 lunar lander and its smaller Yutu rover, also named "Jade Rabbit", on the surface of the moon.  Image Credit:  Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering
An artist’s concept of the Chang’e 3 lunar lander and its smaller Yutu rover, also named “Jade Rabbit,” on the surface of the Moon. Image Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering

In ancient Chinese mythology Yutu was the white pet rabbit of Chang’e, who lived on the Moon with the lunar goddess. The name for the rover was selected following an online poll that collected over 3 million votes from people around the world.

Chang’e 3, as the number designation suggests, is China’s third unmanned mission to the Moon, but the first attempt at actually landing on the lunar surface. Chang’e 1 launched in 2007, and Chang’e 2 launched in 2010. Both missions orbited the Moon and carried out various studies while mapping the lunar surface in its entirety, and both missions laid the foundation for the landing mission that Change’3 is now carrying out as part of China’s ambitious Lunar Exploration Program.

The 260-pound rover, which was designed by the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute, will take four to five days to reach the Moon and will orbit for several more days before making its landing attempt in a flat volcanic plain known as Sinus Iridum, or the “Bay of Rainbows.” A variable thrust engine will help Chang’e 3 perform six stages of deceleration as it descends from 15 kilometers above the surface, and 28 thrusters will control the spacecraft’s attitude through the descent. The European Space Agency (ESA) expects the lunar landing to occur on Dec. 14, as the agency is providing mission tracking of the Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover for China’s space agency.

Successful seperation of Chang'e 3 and China's Yutu lunar rover from the Long March-3B rocket's third stage as the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean minutes after launch.  Image Credit: CCTV
Successful separation of Chang’e 3 and China’s Yutu lunar rover from the Long March-3B rocket’s third stage as the Sun rises over the Pacific Ocean minutes after launch. Image Credit: CCTV

Yutu is designed based on the topography of the lunar surface at its landing site, and although the mission team selected the landing site, the Chang’e 3 lander has the ability to perform the landing autonomously—it can choose the final landing site itself using radar to aim for a level surface so deployment of the rover is safely conducted. The rover itself is equipped with specially designed metallic wheels so the dusty lunar surface will not negatively affect the the vehicle. Once on the ground the rover will rely on onboard sensors and three cameras to navigate its own way to avoid obstacles, mapping its own path around rocks and other dangers that could cripple the vehicle, therefore eliminating the need to climb steep slopes to reach areas of interest (the rover can, however, climb slopes that angle to as much as 30 degrees).

Yutu is tasked with the goal of surveying the geology of the Moon, both on and below the surface, as well as seeking out natural resources which could (potentially) be exploited to our benefit in the future. It has been known for some time now that the Moon is rich in minerals and metals such as uranium and titanium, which Earth does not have much of for us to use. Helium-3 is also available in abundance on the Moon and could potentially be used as fuel for nuclear fusion, which (in theory) could eliminate our demand for energy for thousands of years.

“First, we want to develop our technology because lunar exploration requires many types of technology, including communications, computers, all kinds of IT skills and the use of different kinds of materials. This is the key reason,” said Professor Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program in a recent statement to BBC News. “In terms of the science, besides Earth we also need to know our brothers and sisters like the Moon, its origin and evolution, and then from that we can know about our Earth.”
VIDEO – China launches Chang’e 3 on country’s first mission to land on the moon.  Video Credit: SpaceVids.Tv

“In terms of the talents, China needs its own intellectual team who can explore the whole lunar and solar system – that is also our main purpose,” adds Ziyuan. “After all of this work, which is that China can make the achievement of arriving at the Moon and safely landing and that we can bring samples back; and once we finish all these unmanned projects, we will send man there.  The Moon is full of resources, and these resources can be used without limitation.  We hope we can fully utilize the Moon to support sustainable development for humans and society.”

China intends on launching another unmanned rover to carry out a similar mission in 2015 before launching a lunar sample-return mission in 2017. Should both of those missions (Chang’e 4 and Chang’e 5) be successful, then China will be ready to send humans back to the Moon in the mid- to late-2020s.

“Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country’s comprehensive national power,” said Ziyuan in a statement to China’s official newspaper People’s Daily. “It is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people’s cohesion.”


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    • I wish more people like you Tom, were in a position of power. The whole situation kinda reminds me the tale of the tortoise and the hare. The Chinese have gone within a decade from launching humans into space, to attempting to soft land on the Moon. I’m willing to bet that by the end of the decade, they will try an Apollo 8-style mission.

      The Universe is out there for everyone. First come, first served.

      • It seems to me that the American public has forgotten, or just doesn’t care, that NASA has been to the moon MANY times, not even counting the Apollo missions. LADEE is carrying out its mission right now as we speak, not to mention we are on Mars and have spacecraft at Mercury & Saturn, a well as spacecraft currently en route to Jupiter & Pluto. China has a lot of catching up to do, we may not be launching astronauts right now but NASA is not out of business, not by a long shot..

        • You are completely right Mike. I wasn’t implying that NASA is out of bussiness. Of course it’s not. But there’s a problem of direction and leadership. Robotic exploration is really great, and the US has been in the forefront of lunar exploration.

          But Apollo is nearly 50 years old. And my question is, what happens today? I liked the Chinese statement in your article about exploiting lunar resources and establishing a human presence there. If the Chinese do establish a human presence on the Moon, and tap on lunar resources, the Apollo missions will become more like a footnote of history.

          Kinda like the discovery of the New World. It was the Vikings who first sailed to Nothern America and Greenland, nearly 400 years before Columbus, but we best remember the Europeans as being there first.

  1. Sadly it appears the USA’s political elite no longer look upon the conquest of space as an adventure.

    As a result I believe science in general is suffering because of this short sightedness.

    Indeed as a spectator this may be why the commercial development of space is so appealing.

    Indeed Nasa and the Commercial space revolution is mainly overlooked by the World’s media.

    Perhaps this and future Chinese missions will inspire the politicos and the rest of the World’s space faring countries into looking to the heavens once again, instead of their feet.

  2. How have we abandoned space?
    China is launching a rover to the moon ….By the end of the decade I believe private entities will have fully staffed moon bases with workers doing all kinds of research and setting up for mining and power production…SpaceX’s reuseable rocket systems and Bigelow aerospace will be a big part in making this happen…Does no one else not see this? By the end of the decade NASA will be talking about a landing a Man on Mars after the successful IM Tito Mars Flyby in 2018-2019…The Mars Ship will probably be under construction….China will Not have landed anyone on the Moon yet…There is no race with China

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