China has launched its first lunar rover mission, the next key step in the Asian superpower’s ambitious space programme.
The Chang’e-3 mission blasted off from Xichang in the south at 01:30 Monday local time (17:30 GMT Sunday).
The Long March rocket’s payload includes a landing module and a six-wheeled robotic rover called Yutu (or Jade Rabbit).
The mission should land in the Moon’s northern hemisphere in mid-December.
Chinese state TV carried live pictures of the launch of the Chinese-developed Long March 3B rocket carrying the lunar probe.
This will be the third robotic rover mission to land on the lunar surface, but the Chinese vehicle carries a more sophisticated payload, including ground-penetrating radar which will gather measurements of the lunar soil and crust.
The 120kg (260lb) Jade Rabbit rover can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200m (660ft) per hour, according to its designer the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute.
Its name – chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters – derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living on the moon as the pet of the lunar goddess Chang’e.
Last week, Prof Ouyang Ziyuan told the BBC’s science editor David Shukman that the mission would test key technology and carry out science, adding: “In terms of the talents, China needs its own intellectual team who can explore the whole lunar and solar system – that is also our main purpose.”
The lander’s target is Sinus Iridum (Latin for Bay of Rainbows) a flat volcanic plain thought to be relatively clear of large rocks. It is part of a larger feature known as Mare Imbrium that forms the right eye of the “Man in the Moon”.
Other details of the mission are sketchy; the rover and lander are powered by solar panels but other sources suggest they also carry radioisotope heating units (RHUs) containing plutonium-238 to keep them warm during the cold lunar night.
The US Apollo astronauts Eugene Cernan and “Buzz” Aldrin have also remarked in a recent article that the landing module is substantially bigger than it needs to be to carry the rover, suggesting that it could be precursor technology to a human landing.
If successful, the mission, aimed at exploring the Moon’s surface and looking for natural resources such as rare metals, will be a milestone in China’s long-term space exploration programme, which includes establishing a permanent space station in Earth orbit.
Chang’e 3 is “the most complicated and difficult task yet in China’s exploration of space” and incorporates lots of new technology, Xinhua reported Wu Zhijian, a spokesman with the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, as saying.
But one unnamed US scientist recently told the magazine Aerospace America: “Except for a ground-penetrating radar on the rover, none of many science instruments on the lander/rover are expected to discover much new on the Moon.”
The launch comes at a time when the Asian superpower is asserting itself in other areas, such as control of airspace over the East China Sea. China considers its space programme a symbol of its rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as of the Communist Party’s success in reversing the fortunes of the once impoverished nation.
Future lunar launches planned by China include a mission to bring back samples of lunar soil to Earth. But officials have also stated an ambitious goal of sending humans to the Moon, in what could be the first manned lunar missions since the US Apollo programme in the 1960s and 1970s.
Prof Ouyang, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, also highlighted the potential for exploiting the Moon’s environment and natural resources. With only a very thin atmosphere, solar panels would operate far more efficiently, he believes, and a “belt” of them could “support the whole world”.
He also pointed out the potential riches in terms of minerals and metals, which could eventually be mined. “The Moon is full of resources – mainly rare earth elements, titanium, and uranium, which the Earth is really short of, and these resources can be used without limitation.”