China on Tuesday announced plans to launch its third lunar probe early next month, which will, according to officials, attempt to carry out the first “soft landing” on the Moon by any nation in more than three decades.
The Chang’e-3 probe will carry a moon rover – named Jade Rabbit, or Yutu in Chinese – and conduct a soft-landing on the lunar surface in the middle of December. The rover, which takes its name from a popular Chinese mythological story about a rabbit that lives on the moon, will spend three months exploring the surface. Media reports said this would mark the first “soft landing” on the moon since 1976, when the former Soviet Union achieved the feat. If successful, China’s space mission will be only the third to do so, with the U.S. also carrying out soft landings in the 1960s. China, a decade ago, joined the U.S. and Russia in another landmark feat by sending its first astronaut into space.
Wu Zhijian, a spokesperson with the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, told reporters on Tuesday the mission will be “the most complicated and difficult task in China’s space exploration”.
The mission reflects the fast-growing ambitions of China’s space programme, which earlier this year launched its fifth manned space mission, after also achieving its first docking exercise in space with a laboratory module – a key step in its plans to launch its own space station by 2020.
Taking place close on the heels of the launch of India’s Mars orbiter, next month’s lunar mission underlines the rapid strides in both countries’ space programmes.
Chinese officials have, however, been at pains to downplay suggestions of competition between the two countries. Earlier this month, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters that both countries had “expanded mutual cooperation” when asked about India’s Mars orbiter launch, although many Chinese media outlets saw India’s successful launch this month as a challenge to their space programme.
The Global Times, a widely read tabloid, in an editorial about the Mars orbiter wrote that “in front of an India that is striving to catch up with China, we have no other choice but to construct our comprehensive strategic power.” On Tuesday, Li Benzheng, the deputy commander-in-chief of the lunar programme, reiterated that there was “no space race” with India and that China “never thought we are in competition”, State media reported. He also praised India’s Mars orbiter launch as “a great accomplishment”, the New York Times quoted State media as saying.
Mr. Wu, the administration spokesperson, highlighted the difficulty of next month's lunar mission, saying that scientists needed to “ensure a timely launch because of multiple narrow windows of time”.
India and the European Space Agency, like China, have carried out lunar missions ending in impact crash landings on the moon’s surface.
India’s Chandrayaan-1, its first unmanned lunar probe, carried out an impact landing after its landmark mission, while the Chandrayaan-2, scheduled to launch in around three years’ time, is slated to attempt the more complex soft landing on the lunar surface.
Mr. Wu said that after carrying out a soft landing - the first since 1976 - the Jade Rabbit rover will explore areas around the landing spot and send back 3D images and lunar soil analysis. The rover will be carried on the Chang’e-3 probe. The first Chang’e probe in 2007 mapped the moon, and crash landed on its surface after a 16 month-long mission. The Change'e-2 probe in 2010 improved the resolution of the map.