China has launched its first lunar rover mission to space.
The Chang’e-3 mission blasted off from Xichang in the south at 01:30 Monday local time (17:30 GMT Sunday).
The Long March rocket’s payload includes a landing module and a six-wheeled robotic rover Yutu (Jade Rabbit).
The mission should land in the Moon’s northern hemisphere in mid-December.
Chinese state TV carried live pictures of the launch of the Chinese-developed Long March 3B rocket carrying the lunar probe.
This will be the third robotic rover mission to land on the lunar surface, but the Chinese vehicle carries a more sophisticated payload, including ground-penetrating radar which will gather measurements of the lunar soil and crust.
The 260lb Jade Rabbit rover can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 660ft per hour, according to its designer the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute.
Its name – chosen in an online poll of 3.4 million voters – derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living on the moon as the pet of the lunar goddess Chang’e.
The lander’s target is Sinus Iridum (Latin for Bay of Rainbows) a flat volcanic plain thought to be relatively clear of large rocks. It is part of a larger feature known as Mare Imbrium that forms the right eye of the “Man in the Moon”.
Other details of the mission are sketchy; the rover and lander are powered by solar panels but other sources suggest they also carry radioisotope heating units (RHUs) containing plutonium-238 to keep them warm during the cold lunar night.
Chang’e 3 is “the most complicated and difficult task yet in China’s exploration of space” and incorporates lots of new technology, Xinhua reported Wu Zhijian, a spokesman with the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, as saying.
The launch comes at a time when the Asian superpower is asserting itself in other areas, such as control of airspace over the East China Sea. China considers its space programme a symbol of its rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as of the Communist Party’s success in reversing the fortunes of the once impoverished nation.
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