BEIJING – China completed the first soft landing on the moon’s surface in 37 years Saturday, becoming only the third country to pull off the feat.
State television showed scientists in white and pale blue coats applauding, shaking hands and congratulating each other after the craft, Chang’e-3, landed safely at 9:12 p.m. local time. It also showed photographs of the moon’s surface beamed back from the craft.
The landing marked a significant advance in China’s space program and a step toward its ambitions of one day following the United States in mounting a manned lunar mission.
On Sunday, a six-wheeled rover named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, was scheduled to emerge from the landing vehicle and begin a three-month-long mission to explore the moon’s surface.
The moon lander, which weighs more than a ton, landed in the right eye of the lunar feature dubbed the Man in the Moon, in a large and relatively flat volcanic crater known as the Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows. Its rockets shut off when it was about 3.5 meters above the surface, and the craft fell the remaining distance.
The landing craft, which is designed to remain in place and operate for a year, carries a telescope that will survey space from the moon’s surface and an ultraviolet camera that will observe the Earth and the plasmasphere surrounding it.
The rover, which will roam around for three months, will not only analyze the topsoil in a previously unexplored region of the moon, but also collect through its radar system information about the lunar surface to a depth of 100 meters.
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the radar system, in particular, will yield useful data.
“China has said that to be a global power, you do have to contribute to the global pool of scientific knowledge,” he said. “The moon, for all that it is our closest celestial neighbor, is rather unexplored. . . . China is, in fact, contributing to the pool of lunar knowledge.”
The rover will be powered by solar panels during the lunar day, and atomic energy storage batteries will keep it warm and prevent its electronic systems from freezing during the lunar night, which lasts the equivalent of two weeks on Earth and can see temperatures fall to as low as minus 180 degrees.
“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,” Sun Huixian, deputy engineer in chief of the project, told the official Xinhua News Agency. “China’s lunar program is an important component of mankind’s activities to explore the peaceful use of space.”
The lander and the rover are named for a Chinese myth about a woman named Chang’e who swallowed magic pills and took her pet rabbit, Yutu, to the moon, where she has lived as a goddess ever since.
“Though people have discovered that the moon is bleached and desolate, it doesn’t change its splendid role in Chinese traditional culture,” Zhang Yiwu, a professor at Beijing’s Peking University, told Xinhua.
China hopes to mount another mission to the moon in 2017 that will collect rock and soil samples. It also hopes to launch a space station by about 2023 and eventually, perhaps, establish lunar bases and send missions into deep space. Its space program has the advantage of consistent funding and top-level political support, and its successful moon landing will ensure that those factors continue, said Cheng.
“This was a big step,” Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, said. “It makes (a manned mission) far more feasible.”
China’s space program has established itself as a significant player globally, Johnson-Freese added. “It wants to work with developed countries to show it is a major space nation,” she said, adding that China’s program has also encouraged other countries, such as India, to invest more in space exploration to show they are not falling behind in the technological race.
The program is a source of deep national pride and was widely celebrated Saturday by users of the weibo microblogging sites.
“At this moment my eyes are full of tears, I’m proud of my motherland, I’m proud that I’m Chinese,” wrote Huanranbingshi2000.
MissK-Xiaoqiu posted: “China is mighty! It’s so thrilling.”
But a minority of users appeared less impressed. “So . . . the poor are still suffering from hunger, corrupt officials are still corrupt,” one wrote.
“A lot of countries can’t land on the moon, but they can make houses affordable, tuition fees affordable, medical care affordable. I think that is a better reason to be proud,” wrote another.
More than 160,000 people were temporarily evacuated from their homes after the rocket carrying the moon lander took off earlier this month, Chinese media reported, and two farm buildings were hit by falling debris.
The last soft landing on the moon was by the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 probe, which collected soil samples in 1976.