China will launch its first ever moon rover mission tomorrow, state media said, as Beijing embarks on the latest stage of its ambitious space program.
A rocket carrying the vehicle, named “Jade Rabbit” in a nod to Chinese folklore, will blast off at 1:30am.
“The Chang’e 3 is set to be launched for its moon mission from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on Dec. 2,” state broadcaster CCTV said on its verified Twitter account yesterday.
Xinhua news agency also confirmed the launch date, citing officials at the satellite launch center in Sichuan Province.
If successful, the launch will mark a major milestone in China’s space exploration program, which aims to create a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send someone to the moon.
“Apart from launching astronauts into space, this is probably the most complex space mission attempted by China,” Australian space analyst Morris Jones said. “It will also make China only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon.”
Beijing sees its military-run space program as a marker of its rising global stature and growing technological might, as well as the Chinese Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
China has previously sent two probes to orbit the moon, with controllers sending the first of them crashing into the lunar surface at the end of its mission.
Early last month, Beijing offered a rare glimpse into its secretive space program when it put a model of its six-wheeled moon rover on public display. The rover was later named “Yutu,” or jade rabbit, following an online poll in which more than 3 million people voted. The name derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a white rabbit that lives on the moon as the pet of Chang’e, a lunar goddess who swallowed an immortality pill.
Ouyang Ziyuan (歐陽自遠), head of the moon rover project, told Xinhua earlier this week that the ancient beliefs had their origins in the marks left by impacts on the lunar landscape.
“There are several black spots on the moon’s surface. Our ancient people imagined they were a moon palace, osmanthus trees and a jade rabbit,” he said.
The rover’s designer, Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute, claims several technological breakthroughs with the vehicle. The Shanghai-based institute, a unit of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (中國航天科技集團公司), which is linked to the military, says the advances include its “autonomous” navigation system and the way the wheels are able to grip the powdery surface of the moon.
It can climb inclines of up to 30o and travel up to 200m per hour, the institute said.
The showcasing of the rover came on the same day that India was due to launch its first mission to Mars, aiming to become the only Asian nation to reach the Red Planet.