China will on Sunday night launch a lunar probe that will attempt to carry out the first “soft landing” on the Moon in almost four decades, underlining the rapidly growing capabilities of the country’s ambitious space programme.
The Chang’e-3 lunar probe, which will be launched from the Xichang centre in western China at 11 pm IST on Sunday night (1.30 am Monday morning local time), will carry a Moon rover that will survey the lunar surface and explore for natural resources.
Chinese officials have highlighted the launch as the most difficult objective yet of the space programme, as it involves carrying out the first “soft landing” on the Moon since the Soviet Union landed a probe in 1976.
Cen Zheng, the rocket system commander-in-chief of the mission, said on Saturday engineers had adopted new “technologies of high-precision guidance and control” and a first-of-its-kind transmission system for remote sensing.
The Chang’e-3 mission, if successful, will land on the moon in mid-December, following which the Jade Rabbit rover — or Yutu in Chinese, named after a popular Chinese mythological story about a rabbit that lives on the Moon — will spend three months exploring the surface.
Only the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union have carried out soft landings, and no country has done so since 1976.
Officials said the Chang’e-3 probe is far more advanced than the Soviet mission as it is equipped with high-precision sensors to survey landforms at the landing sites and choose the best spot to land.
The mission marks another landmark for the ambitious Chinese space programme, which, earlier this year, launched the country’s fifth manned mission.
China last year also achieved its first docking exercise in space with an orbiting laboratory module — a significant step in its plan to put into orbit its own space station by 2020.
Wu Zhijian, a spokesperson for the space programme, earlier this week described the lunar probe as “the most complicated and difficult task in China’s space exploration” history. The first Chang’e probe, in 2007, mapped the surface of the Moon and after a 16-month mission crash landed on the surface.
India and the European Space Agency have carried out similar “hard landings”. The unmanned Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first unmanned lunar probe.
Announcing the launch earlier this week, officials were eager to downplay suggestions of a “space race” with India, with international attention on both countries’ programmes following India’s Mars probe launch.
Chinese State media devoted wide attention to the Mars probe, with the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the People’s Daily, calling on China to double its efforts “in front of an India that is striving to catch up”.
Li Benzheng, the deputy commander-in-chief of the lunar programme, said China was “never in competition” with India or any country, and congratulated India on the Mars probe, which he described as “a great accomplishment”.