Two years ago, in December 2011, China published a blueprint outlining its ambitions in outer space. The launch, on December 2nd, of Chang’e-3—a lunar mission named after a Moon goddess—shows that it remains on track.
This will be China’s first attempt at a lunar landing. If it succeeds it will make the China National Space Administration (CNSA) only the second, after Russia’s, to put an unmanned rover on the Moon. It may also help pave the way for the agency to match NASA’s greater technical success of landing people there.
The lunar rover itself (named Yutu, meaning “Jade Rabbit”) has six wheels and is intended to operate for three months. Reports of its weight have ranged from 100kg to 140kg. CNSA has not revealed the planned date of the landing attempt—though according to the European Space Agency, which is using its network of tracking stations to relay signals from and send commands to Chang’e-3 on behalf of CNSA, it is December 14th.
The rover has a ground-penetrating radar for the study of rock and regolith (the crushed rock that passes for soil on the Moon). According to a report in Nature, this can scan as much as 100 metres below the surface. That may produce more interesting results than Yutu’s X-ray spectrometer, designed for regolith analysis, since many lunar samples retrieved by American and Soviet missions are already available for study on Earth.
According to CNSA’s blueprint, it too will bring Moon rocks back to Earth. The agency plans re-entry tests with an experimental craft by 2015. In 2020 Chang’e-5 will, if all goes well, return with samples.
That is not all CNSA has planned. In June it conducted its fifth manned mission, during which Shenzhou-10 docked with the first phase of the country’s putative space station. In 2015 it aims to launch Tiangong-2, the station’s second phase.