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China will on Sunday night launch a lunar probe that will attempt to carry out the first “soft landing” on the Moon in almost four decades, underlining the rapidly growing capabilities of the country’s ambitious space programme.
The Chang’e-3 lunar probe, which will be launched from the Xichang centre in western China at 11 pm IST on Sunday night (1.30 am Monday morning local time), will carry a Moon rover that will survey the lunar surface and explore for natural resources.
Chinese officials have highlighted the launch as the most difficult objective yet of the space programme, as it involves carrying out the first “soft landing” on the Moon since the Soviet Union landed a probe in 1976.
Cen Zheng, the rocket system commander-in-chief of the mission, said on Saturday engineers had adopted new “technologies of high-precision guidance and control” and a first-of-its-kind transmission system for remote sensing.
The Chang’e-3 mission, if successful, will land on the moon in mid-December, following which the Jade Rabbit rover — or Yutu in Chinese, named after a popular Chinese mythological story about a rabbit that lives on the Moon — will spend three months exploring the surface.
Only the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union have carried out soft landings, and no country has done so since 1976.
Officials said the Chang’e-3 probe is far more advanced than the Soviet mission as it is equipped with high-precision sensors to survey landforms at the landing sites and choose the best spot to land.
The mission marks another landmark for the ambitious Chinese space programme, which, earlier this year, launched the country’s fifth manned mission.
China last year also achieved its first docking exercise in space with an orbiting laboratory module — a significant step in its plan to put into orbit its own space station by 2020.
Wu Zhijian, a spokesperson for the space programme, earlier this week described the lunar probe as “the most complicated and difficult task in China’s space exploration” history. The first Chang’e probe, in 2007, mapped the surface of the Moon and after a 16-month mission crash landed on the surface.
India and the European Space Agency have carried out similar “hard landings”. The unmanned Chandrayaan-1 was India’s first unmanned lunar probe.
Announcing the launch earlier this week, officials were eager to downplay suggestions of a “space race” with India, with international attention on both countries’ programmes following India’s Mars probe launch.
Chinese State media devoted wide attention to the Mars probe, with the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the People’s Daily, calling on China to double its efforts “in front of an India that is striving to catch up”.
Li Benzheng, the deputy commander-in-chief of the lunar programme, said China was “never in competition” with India or any country, and congratulated India on the Mars probe, which he described as “a great accomplishment”.
China to launch Chang’e-3 lunar probe
China will launch the Chang’e-3 lunar probe to the moon at 1:30 am Monday from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, the mission’s launching headquarters said Saturday.
It will be the first time for China to send a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body, where it will conduct surveys on the moon.
Facilities at the launching site are in good condition and preparations are going well, according to the headquarters.
The probe will be launched to orbit aboard an enhanced Long March-3B carrier which is more than three meters in diameter and 56.4 meters high.
The mission will be the 25th launch of the Long March-3B, which is the most powerful launch vehicle in the Long March fleet.
Engineers have adopted technologies of high-precision guidance and control, multiple narrow window launches, transmission system for remote sensing, and reduction of the rocket’s deadweight, said Cen Zheng, rocket system commander-in-chief of the mission.
Chang’e-3 comprises a lander and a moon rover called “Yutu” (Jade Rabbit). The lunar probe will land on the moon in mid-December if everything goes according to plan.
Tasks for Yutu include surveying the moon’s geological structure and surface substances, while looking for natural resources.
So far, only the United States and the former Soviet Union have soft-landed on the moon.
After entering lunar orbit, Chang’e-3 will go through six stages of deceleration to descend from 15 km above to the lunar surface.
The soft-landing processes of the US and former Soviet Union’s unmanned spacecraft had no capacity to hover or avoid obstacles. Chang’e-3, on the other hand, can accurately survey landforms at the landing site and identify the safest spots on which to land.
In order to land quickly, the probe is equipped with high-precision, fast-response sensors to analyze its motion and surroundings. The variable thrust engine (completely designed and made by Chinese scientists) can generate up to 7,500 newtons of thrust. – Xinhua