China Plans Lunar Rover Mission for Next Year

By Max Eddy on August 1, 2012 8:33 PM EDT

Long March 3B Rocket
China may launch its robotic rover and lander mission to the Moon aboard a Long March 3B rocket like this one. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Chinese news outlets are reporting that the country's ambitious lunar program will continue with an unmanned lander and robotic rover mission in the second half of 2013. Called Chang'e 3, after the Chinese goddess of the Moon, it will be the first Chinese probe to reach the surface of the moon.

China's lunar program began in 2007 with the launch of the Chang'e 1 orbiter, and continued in 2010 with the Chang'e 2 satellite. These missions comprised an extensive mapping effort of the lunar landscape, and were apparently key to planning future Moon missions.

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Chang'e 3 will be centered around a 220-pound lander that is expected to blast off aboard a Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest Sichuan province. The lander will be equipped with cameras and other sensors, and will carry out celestial observations as well as studies of the lunar surface.

The lander will also carry a 260-pound rover to take and analyze soil samples. The five-foot tall rover will pack automatic obstacle avoidance, to ensure it doesn't crash into anything, and cameras for real-time video streaming. According to a 2009 report, the rover will also carry a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which creates power from radioactive decay and allows the rover to function during lunar night.

Should it be successful, Chang'e 3 will be the first soft landing on the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. It will also mark a major advancement in China's lunar program, which hopes to carry out a manned mission to Earth's satellite by 2025.

The Chinese space program has seen rapid development in recent years, most recently with the successful launch of the country's first space lab Tiangong 1. China carried out its longest mission to date with Shenzhou 9 in June of this year, when Chinese astronauts -- including China's first female space traveler -- visited the station.

If everything goes according to plan, China is projected to launch another lander mission 2015 and a sample return mission in 2017.

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