BEIJING – China’s Jade Rabbit rover vehicle sent back photos from the moon Sunday after the first lunar soft landing in nearly four decades marked a huge advance in the country’s ambitious space program.
The Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, was deployed at 4:35 a.m., several hours after the Chang’e-3 probe landed on the moon, said the official news agency, Xinhua.
The rover and lander began taking photos of each other late Sunday, including one that showed the bright red and yellow stars of the Chinese flag on the Jade Rabbit as it stands on the moon’s surface.
Xinhua said the photographing began at about 11:42 p.m. after the rover moved to a spot a few meters away from the lander.
The color images were transmitted live to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, where Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang watched the broadcast.
China is the third country to complete a lunar rover mission, after the United States and the former Soviet Union — a decade after it first sent an astronaut into space.
Beijing plans to establish a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send a human to the moon.
The mission is 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.
Ma Xingrui, chief commander of China’s lunar program, declared the mission a “complete success” after the photographs showed the lander and rover were working, Xinhua said.
A message from the party’s Central Committee, the State Council — China’s Cabinet — and the Central Military Commission branded the touchdown a “milestone” in China’s space program, as cited by Xinhua late Sunday.
“One Giant Leap for China,” read the headline in Hong Kong’s Sunday Morning Post, evoking the words in 1969 of American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.
The landing, nearly two weeks after blastoff, was the first of its kind since the former Soviet Union’s mission in 1976.
State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) featured extensive coverage of the mission and China’s wider space ambitions.
The potential to extract the moon’s resources has been touted as a key reason behind Beijing’s space program, with the moon believed to hold uranium, titanium and other mineral resources, as well as offering the possibility of solar power generation.
“China wants to go to the moon for geostrategic reasons and domestic legitimacy,” said China space expert Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“With the U.S. exploration moribund at best, that opens a window for China to be perceived as the global technology leader — though the U.S. still has more, and more advanced, assets in space.”
News of the landing quickly made an impact on China’s hugely popular Internet message boards, topping the list of searched items.
“The China dream has finally progressed one step forward!” wrote one user.
On its Sunday afternoon broadcast, CCTV aired video taken by the lander showing the rover leaving tracks in the dust as it gently coasted onto the moon’s surface and rolled away.
The probe touched down on a 400-km wide plain known in Latin as Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows.
Before landing, the probe slowed down from 1,700 meters per second and then hovered for about 20 seconds, using sensors and 3D imaging to identify a flat area.
Thrusters were then deployed 100 meters from the lunar surface to gently guide the craft into position. The landing process started at 9 p.m. Saturday and lasted for about 12 minutes.
Four minutes after landing, the Chang’e-3 unfolded solar panels that will provide energy to the lander and rover, the China Daily reported.
The landing had been considered the most difficult part of the mission.
The rover will spend about three months exploring the moon’s surface and looking for natural resources.
It 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 after her pet. Yutu’s name was chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters.
Among those beyond China’s borders offering their congratulations on the landing was former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who wrote via Twitter: “Congratulations to China on reaching the moon with its rover — an impressive soft landing!”