China's first lunar rover on Saturday successfully landed on the moon, making the communist giant one of three world powers to make a "soft landing" as part of an ambitious programme that aims to put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.
The landing of the probe Chang'e-3, the unmanned spacecraft carrying China's first lunar rover, marked the first time that a soft landing has been made on the moon in nearly four decades.
The soft landing was carried out 12 days after the probe blasted off on an enhanced Long March-3B carrier rocket. It also made China one of only three nations -- after the United States and the former Soviet Union -- to soft land on the moon. A soft landing is one which does not damage the spacecraft and the equipment it carries.
The probe is equipped with shock absorbers in its four "legs" to cushion the impact of the landing, making Chang'e-3 -- that includes a lander and a moon rover called "Yutu" or Jade Rabbit - the first Chinese spacecraft with "legs."
The lunar probe touched down in Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, at 9:11 pm local time, according to BeijingAerospaceControlCenter. During the process, the probe decelerated from 15 km above the moon, stayed hovering at 100 metres from the lunar surface to use sensors to assess the landing area to avoid obstacles and locate the final landing spot, and descended slowly onto the surface, state-run Xinhua reported.
The probe's soft-landing is the most difficult task during the mission, said Wu Weiren, the lunar programme's chief designer. Chang'e-3 relied on auto-control for descent, range and velocity measurements, finding the proper landing point, and free-falling.
Chang'e-3 adopted a variable thrust engine completely designed and made by Chinese scientists. It can realise continuous variation of thrust power ranging from 1,500 to 7,500 newtons, according to Wu Weiren.
Yutu's tasks include surveying the moon's geological structure and surface substances and looking for natural resources. The lander will operate there for one year while the rover will be there for three months.
Chang'e-3 is part of the second phase of China's lunar programme, which includes orbiting, landing and returning to the earth. It follows the success of the Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 missions in 2007 and 2010.
The landing of Chang'e-3 comes a decade after the country first sent an astronaut into space, and ahead of plans to establish a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send a human to the moon.
The successful landing shows China has the ability of in-situ exploration on an extraterrestrial body, said Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief in charge of the second phase of China's lunar programme.
"Compared to the last century's space race between the US and the former Soviet Union, mankind's current return to the moon is more based on curiosity and exploration of the unknown universe.
"China's lunar programme is an important component of mankind's activities to explore peaceful use of space," Sun said. Compared to the other two countries, which have successfully conducted 13 soft landings on the moon, China's soft landing mission designed the suspension and obstacle-avoiding phases to survey the landing area much more precisely through fitted detectors, the report quoted scientists as saying.
The robot's name was decided by a public online poll and comes from a Chinese myth about the pet white rabbit of a goddess, Chang'e, who is said to live on the moon.
China has rapidly built up its space programme since it first sent an astronaut into space in 2003.
Image: Artist's impression of Yutu lunar rover descending from the Chang'e 3 lander
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons