China Enters New Territory With Lunar Lander, Scheduled For Launch This Year
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
China announced on Wednesday that it will launch its first lunar lander, the Chang’e 3, by the end of the year. Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, the upcoming Chang’e mission marks the next step in the Asian nation’s ambitious space program.
“Chang’e-3 has officially entered its launch stage, following its research and manufacture period,” said a government statement released to state media. “The mission will see a Chinese orbiter soft-land, or land on the moon after using a technique to slow its speed, on a celestial body for the first time.”
In 2007, China launched its Chang’e 1, a lunar orbiter that captured images of the Moon’s surface and analyzed the distribution of elements it found. In 2010, the Chang’e 2 orbiter performed lunar surveys in preparation for the eventual arrival of a lunar lander.
China’s space agency spent six years designing and developing the third Chang’e mission, which is expected to map the lunar surface and test samples of lunar rocks and soil.
“The main task for Chang’e 3 is to make a soft landing on the Moon,” mission designer Wu Weiren told BBC News. “The risks are very high and there is a big responsibility. We will launch by the end of this year.”
After landing, the craft will release a radio-controlled rover that will take pictures and dig out samples of the surface. These samples will be tested and the results transmitted back to Earth, but the Chang’e 3 rover will remain on the lunar surface. China is expected to launch another rover in the coming years and an eventual manned mission is expected to bring any rover samples to Earth.
Chinese scientists have been raising the prospect of sending a manned mission to the Moon after 2020. The pronouncements come as the country successfully completed its latest manned space mission.
In June, three astronauts spent 15 days orbiting the Earth and docking with Tiangong 1, a small, experimental space station. Launched in 2011, the station is a precursor to Tiangong 2, a three-module permanent station also scheduled to be fully operational by 2020.
In March 2012, the space agency began manufacturing the Chang’e 3 lander’s body and payload, which will act independently of the rover. The lander will weigh 1.3 tons and carry seven instruments and cameras. These cameras will focus on the Earth and other celestial bodies, in addition to the Moon.
According to state media outlet Xinhua, the Chang’e 3 rocket has successfully completed an initial test. The launch pad, control and “ground application” systems have also been tested, Xinhua added.
The military-backed space agency has been a source of national pride for China and, like other aspects of the nation’s recent history, it has pushed ahead in a series of well-funded, highly-coordinated steps.
While Beijing says its space program is entirely peaceful, the Defense Department has said China is coordinating its activities in a way that would keep its potential adversaries from using space-based assets during a crisis.