China’s ‘rabbit’ rover makes tracks on moon

Mission is latest step in ambitious space program

China’s first moon rover, ‘Jade Rabbit,’ is seen on the lunar surface in an area known as Sinus Iridum — the Bay of Rainbows.
China’s first moon rover, ‘Jade Rabbit,’ is seen on the lunar surface in an area known as Sinus Iridum — the Bay of Rainbows.

BEIJING — China’s first moon rover has touched the lunar surface and left deep traces on the loose soil, state media reported Sunday, several hours after the country successfully carried out the world’s first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades.

The 300-pound “Jade Rabbit” rover separated from the much larger landing vehicle early Sunday, seven hours after the unmanned Chang’e 3 space probe touched down on a fairly flat, Earth-facing part of the moon.

State-run China Central Television showed images from the lander’s camera of the rover and its shadow moving down a sloping ladder and touching the surface, setting off applause in Beijing’s control center. It said the lander and rover would take photos of each other.

Later, the six-wheeled rover will survey the moon’s geology and surface and look for natural resources for three months; the lander will carry out scientific explorations for a year.

The mission marks the next stage in an ambitious program that aims to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.

China’s space program is an enormous source of pride for the country, the third to carry out a lunar soft landing — which does not damage the craft and the equipment it carries — after the United States and the former Soviet Union. The last one was by the Soviet Union in 1976.

“It’s still a significant technological challenge to land on another world,” said Peter Bond of Jane’s Space Systems and Industry.

“Especially somewhere like the moon, which doesn’t have an atmosphere so you can’t use parachutes or anything like that. You have to use rocket motors for the descent and you have to make sure you go down at the right angle and the right rate of descent and you don’t end up in a crater on top of a large rock.”

Saturday evening, CCTV showed a computer-generated image of the Chang’e 3 lander’s path as it approached the moon’s surface. The Chang’e 3’s solar panels, used to absorb sunlight to generate power, opened soon after the landing.

The mission blasted off from southwest China on Dec. 2 on a carrier rocket.

It is named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon and the “Yutu” rover, or “Jade Rabbit” in English, is the goddess’ pet.

China’s military-backed space program has made methodical progress in a relatively short time, although it lags far behind the United States and Russia in technology and experience.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. In 2006, it sent its first probe to the moon. China plans to open a space station around 2020 and send an astronaut to the moon after that.