Flying China to the moon

By landing a rover on the lunar surface, Beijing steals a march on its Asian rivals.

China has successfully landed a craft carrying a robotic rover called Jade Rabbit (Yutu) on the surface of the moon on December 14, the first soft landing on the lunar surface in 37 years. It is only the third country, after the US and Russia, to achieve this feat. Yutu has already sent back photos from the moon indicating that the mission has become fully operational.

China's lunar landing is a major technological triumph for a state that, over a period of time, has made significant progress in the outer space arena. The indigenous nature of China's space programme is commendable. It may have received assistance from Russia in the initial stages but its indigenous progress in space science during the past decade has been spectacular. China successfully began its manned space programme a decade back and Chinese astronauts have carried out a few space walks. It has also developed a prototype space station and has a well-articulated roadmap for the future. Yutu's success so far must have reassured the Chinese scientific community about its capabilities. This is because on December 10, after many years, China witnessed a failure in "space" when a Chinese-Brazilian satellite launched by China failed to reached its planned orbit.

China's eyes have been set on the moon for more than five years now. Its spacecraft to the moon was first successfully launched on October 24, 2007 (Chang'e 1), and the second on October 1, 2010. The third mission, Chang'e 3, was launched on December 1. The next mission may be launched in 2017, and is expected to bring back rock samples. China also proposes a human mission to the moon around 2030.

China has a pragmatic outlook for its moon programme, undertaking activities to understand the moon's mineral composition and examine the possibilities of exploration. The Chinese are keen to develop satellite maintenance hubs on the lunar surface and are interested in conducting experiments in zero gravity. At this point, China looks to study the moon for the detection and analyses of the content and distribution of useful elements as well as the types of materials on the surface, while calculating the depth of lunar soil for an eventual human landing. Exploration of the space environment between the earth and moon is also part of the mission, as is the recording of initial solar wind data. China's ongoing and projected future activities indicate that it has a genuine, long-term interest in the moon, with the understanding that these investments could eventually lead to economic benefits.

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