BEIJING – State media say China on Saturday evening safely carried out the world’s first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades.
State television showed pictures of the moon’s surface as the Chang’e 3 lander touched down. The lander carries a moon rover called “Jade Rabbit” that will separate from the lander and embark on a three-month scientific exploration.
China is the third country to carry out a lunar soft landing after the United States and the Soviet Union. The last one was in 1976.
China’s ambitious space program is an enormous source of pride for the country. It plans to eventually land people on the moon.
The probe was expected to touch down on an ancient 400-km-wide plain known in Latin as Sinus Iridum, or The Bay of Rainbows.
The landing, which was expected to be carried out independently by the spacecraft, was described as the “most difficult” part of the mission in an earlier post on Chang’e-3′s Weibo page.
The landing craft uses sensors and 3D imaging to identify a flat surface. Thrusters are deployed 100 meters from the lunar surface to gently guide the craft into position. The probe, which is also fitted with shock absorbers in the legs to cushion the impact of the landing, was to “free-fall” for the crucial final few meters of descent.
“Chang’e-3 is completely relying on auto-control for descent, range and velocity measurements, finding the proper landing point, and free-falling,” an earlier post on Chang’e-3′s Weibo page said. “At this stage, the Earth base is effectively powerless, and there is only about 10 minutes to finish the process.”
Karl Bergquist, international relations administrator at the European Space Agency (ESA) and who has worked with Chinese space officials on the Chang’e-3 mission, said the key challenge had been to identify a flat location for the landing.
“I was told by Chinese space officials that the lander and rover are each equipped with a camera and that when the rover separates from the lander they will both take a picture of each other from distance which will then be sent back to Earth,” he said earlier. “I am sure that all those involved in this project in China will feel a great relief and elation when they obtain such images, just like we would do too here at ESA in a similar situation.”
After reaching the lunar surface, the module will now release its rover, which can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200 meters per hour, according to the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute.
The Chang’e-3 mission is named after the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology and the rover vehicle is called Yutu, or “Jade Rabbit,” after her pet.
The landing marked the latest step in an ambitious space program seen as a symbol of China’s rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as the Communist Party’s success in reversing the fortunes of the once impoverished nation. It 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.
State broadcaster CCTV was to air a live broadcast ahead of the landing, it said on its microblog.
“Excited! Our journey is to the stars and oceans!,” said one Weibo poster.