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Updated: 12/03/2013 01:19:01AM

China launches ‘Jade Rabbit’ rover to moon

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In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, the Long March 3B rocket carrying the Chang'e-3 lunar probe blasts off from the launch pad at Xichang Satellite Launch Center, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Monday Dec. 2, 2013. 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. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Li Gang) NO SALES

Simon Denyer

(c) 2013, The Washington Post

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BEIJING (Washington Post) — China took a significant step toward eventually landing a person on the moon with Monday’s successful launch of a rocket carrying its first moon rover, the “Jade Rabbit.”

The rocket blasted off from southwestern China at 1:30 a.m. Monday, a day after India’s maiden Mars orbiter left Earth’s orbit on its journey to the red planet, in what some observers characterize as Asia’s new space race.

China’s rocket is expected to deposit the rover in the right eye of the “Man in the Moon” in mid-December, specifically targeting a large volcanic crater known as the Sinus Iridum or Bay of Rainbows, thought to be relatively free of large rocks.

If successful, China will be the third country to achieve a soft landing on the moon, after the United States and Russia. The last soft landing on the moon was the unmanned Soviet Luna 24 rover, which collected soil samples in 1976.

“We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” said Zhang Zhenshong, director of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, according to the Xinhua state news agency.

Zhang was echoing the nationalist rhetoric of President Xi Jinping, who has made the “Chinese dream” one of his key motifs.

The rover, called “Yutu” in Chinese, is named after a Chinese myth about a woman named Chang’e who swallowed magic pills and took her pet rabbit to the moon, where she has been living as a goddess ever since.

The rover will set up a telescope on the moon for the first time, survey the moon’s geological structure and look for natural resources through a radar installed on the rover, Xinhua reported.

Ultimately, China aims to follow the United States by landing a man on the moon — although it has yet to set a specific target date for that mission — and to continue toward Mars.

“China’s space exploration will not stop at the moon,” Sun Huixian, a senior engineer in the space program, told Xinhua. “Our target is deep space.”

India, Japan and Russia are also giving serious thought to manned missions to the moon sometime in the 2020s.

Chinese scientists and experts frame the space program partially in terms of the nation’s constant quest for energy and raw materials, talking about helium-3 and solar power as potential energy sources on the moon, as well as its reserves of titanium, rare earths, uranium and thorite.

“Now nobody is exploiting the resources because the economic costs are too high,” Ouyang Ziyuan of the Chinese Academy of Science told Xinhua. “This is a possibility in the future, and humans should know what is there on the moon.”

Chinese officials denied they were in competition with India or other nations and have offered to cooperate with other countries. The U.S. Congress has banned NASA from using federal funds to cooperate with China or Chinese companies since 2011.

Some U.S. scientists say the Chinese mission is not likely to add much to what is already known about the moon. In a recent article in Aerospace America magazine, unidentified U.S. scientists said the Chinese rover design was similar to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover and that, apart from the Chinese radar system, many instruments were similar to those carried by previous U.S. and Russian space missions.

However, the mission does represent a breakthrough in China’s space program, and it shows the country is making progress toward landing a person on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, has urged NASA to cooperate with China, perhaps collaborating one day to land a person on Mars.

“The Chang’e 3 details tell me that the U.S. now absolutely must start communicating with the Chinese about lunar cooperation,” he told Aerospace America.

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