BEIJING — China took a significant step toward eventually landing a person on the moon with Monday’s successful launch of a rocket carrying its first moon rover, the “Jade Rabbit.”
The rocket blasted off from southwestern China at 1:30 a.m. Monday, a day after India’s maiden Mars mission left Earth’s orbit on its journey to the Red Planet, in what some observers characterize as Asia’s new space race.
China’s rocket is expected to deposit the rover in the right eye of the “Man in the Moon” in mid-December, targeting a large volcanic crater known as the Sinus Iridum or the Bay of Rainbows, thought to be relatively free of large rocks.
If the mission succeeds, China will become the third country to achieve a soft landing on the moon, after the United States and Russia. The last soft landing on the moon was the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 rover, which collected soil samples in 1976.
“We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” said Zhang Zhenshong, director of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Zhang was echoing President Xi Jinping, who has made the “Chinese dream” one of his key motifs.
The rover, called “Yutu” in Chinese, is named after a Chinese myth about a woman named Chang’e who swallowed magic pills and took her pet rabbit to the moon, where she has been living as a goddess ever since.
The rover will set up a telescope on the moon for the first time, survey its geological structure and look for natural resources through a radar, Xinhua reported.
China aims to follow the United States by landing a man on the moon — though it has yet to set a target date for that mission — and to continue toward Mars.
“China’s space exploration will not stop at the moon,” Sun Huixian, a senior engineer in the space program, told Xinhua. “Our target is deep space.”
India, Japan and Russia also are giving serious thought to manned missions to the moon in the 2020s.
Chinese scientists and experts frame the space program partially in terms of their nation’s constant quest for energy and raw materials, talking about helium-3 and solar power as potential energy sources on the moon, as well as its reserves of titanium, rare earths, uranium and thorite.
“Now nobody is exploiting the resources because the economic costs are too high,” Ouyang Ziyuan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told Xinhua. “This is a possibility in the future, and humans should know what is there on the moon.”
Chinese officials denied that they were in competition with India or other nations and have offered to cooperate with other countries. Since 2011, the U.S. Congress has banned NASA from using federal funds to cooperate with China or Chinese companies.
Some U.S. scientists say the Chinese mission is not likely to add much to what is already known about the moon. In a recent article in Aerospace America magazine, unidentified U.S. scientists said the Chinese rover design was similar to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover and that, apart from the Chinese radar system, many instruments were similar to those previously carried by U.S. and Russian space missions.
However, the mission does represent a breakthrough in China’s space program, and it shows that the country is making progress toward landing a person on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, has urged NASA to cooperate with China, perhaps collaborating to land a person on Mars.
“The Chang’e 3 details tell me that the U.S. now absolutely must start communicating with the Chinese about lunar cooperation,” he told Aerospace America.
Li Qi contributed to this report.