Third country after the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union to achieve a "soft landing"

China on Saturday for the first time landed a rover on the Moon — the first country to do so since 1976 — marking a landmark for the country’s fast-developing space programme.

A lunar probe carrying the “Jade Rabbit” or Yu Tu rover landed in the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum, on the Moon’s surface, 12 days after the Chang’e-3 probe — the country’s third major lunar mission — blasted off from southwestern China.

The Beijing Aerospace Control Center said the probe had landed “successfully”, with China becoming the third country after the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union to achieve a “soft landing”.

China’s mission, the centre said, was more advanced, having “designed the suspension and obstacle-avoiding phases to survey the landing area much more precisely through fitted detectors”. The rover will spend the next few weeks exploring the lunar surface.

The mission highlights the rapid advancements in China’s space programme, following two lunar missions, in 2007 and 2010, which saw the country carrying out a hard impact landing and mapping the Moon’s surface. India (Chandrayaan-1 probe) and the European Space Agency have carried out similar hard landings.

The landing showed that China now had “the ability of in-situ exploration on an extraterrestrial body”, Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief of the space programme, told State media.

He downplayed suggestions of a “space race” between China and any other country, in the wake of global attention on India’s space programme following the recent Mars probe launch, “Compared to the last century’s space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, mankind’s current return to the moon is more based on curiosity and exploration of the unknown universe,” he said.