China Launches 'Jade Rabbit' Moon Rover To Scout Location for Space Station

By Rhonda J. Miller on December 1, 2013 1:41 PM EST

China's Moon Rover 'Jade Rabbit'
A model of China's lunar rover 'Jade Rabbit' was on display at the China International Industry Fair in Shanghai on Nov. 5, 2013. (Photo: phys.org / Rhonda J. Miller)

China is fueling its ambitious space program with the launch of its first ever moon rover mission on Dec. 2, according to the nation's official broadcaster CCTV. The launch of a rocket with the unmanned moon rover 'Jade Rabbit' sets China on course to create a permanent space station by 2020, and eventually send a person to the moon, according to phys.org.

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The moon mission will launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, according to Agence FrancePress (AFP)"Apart from launching astronauts into space, this is probably the most complex space mission attempted by China," Australian space analyst Morris Jones told AFP. "It will also make China only the third nation to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon."

Beijing considers its military-run space program a sign of its rising global stature and growing technological might, as well as the ruling Communist Party's success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation, according to AFP. China has previously sent two probes to orbit the moon, with controllers sending the first one crashing into the lunar surface at the end of the mission, according to the Daily Mail.

The name of the moon rover, "Yutu," or Jade Rabbit, comes from Chinese folklore about a rabbit's outline said to be visible on the moon's surface, according to China's official Xinhua news agency. The rabbit on the moon visualization is similar to the Western imagery of the man on the moon. The Jade Rabbit name was chosen through an online poll, in which millions participated. "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," Ouyang Ziyuan, head of the moon rover project, told Xinhua, according to the Daily Mail.

China's goal of establishing a permanent lunar base is a step toward launching a mission to Mars within the next 15 years, according to the Daily Mail. The spacecraft is targeted to land within a huge volcanic crater known as Sinus Iridum, which means the Bay of Rainbows, sometime around Dec. 14. Jade Rabbit is expected to roam the surface of the moon for about 90 days in Earth time — about three lunar days — and cover an area of about five square kilometers. It will send probes beneath the surface as well as taking high-resolution images.

The mission will be monitored by the European Space Agency, which is cooperating closely with China, according to the Daily Mail. The ESA station in French Guiana will receive signals from the mission and upload commands to the probe in collaboration with the Chinese control center. "Whether for human or robotic missions, international cooperation like this is necessary for the future exploration of planets, moons and asteroids, benefitting everyone," said Thomas Reiter, director of ESA's human spaceflight operations. China is one of only three countries to have independently sent humans into space, along with Russia and the U.S.  China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. 

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