A view of Earth from space..

December 5, 2013

China takes aim at moon in landmark lunar mission

For the first time in nearly 40 years, a man-made rover is en route to the moon.

On Monday, China launched the ambitious Chang'e-3 exploration mission — a first for the country's space program, and a key piece of the overall Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. The lander spacecraft and its on-board rover, known as "Jade Rabbit," will touch down on the moon Dec. 16. 

Li He, a PhD candidate and lunar researcher in the School of Geography & Earth Sciences, sheds some light on the Chang'e-3 Moon mission, and what it means for the future of the space race:

Why has it been nearly 40 years since a lunar rover has made a soft landing on the moon?

Massive costs are a possible reason. China began its lunar studies during the 1970s, but it took a long time to meet such ambitious objectives due to economic and technological factors. Scientific objectives have also changed from landing and walking on the moon to more advanced objectives, such as comprehensively exploring lunar materials and making sufficient use of lunar resources. Besides, the moon is not the only planet of interest. Many rovers have been sent to other planets such as Mars.

For those who are unfamiliar with the modern space race, how significant is this moon mission?

In China, the lunar exploration program can boost the development of cutting-edge technologies involving communications, materials and the exchange of information, which can then be used for various civil industries. Overall, a better understanding of the geographical, geological, physical, chemical and evolutionary characteristics of our "neighbours" (such as the moon) will help us better understand the Earth and make use of lunar resources.

What type of work will the Chang'e-3 be conducting?

After touching down on the lunar surface, the lander and the rover, "Jade Rabbit," will begin working independently. The lander will be taking astronomical measurements and monitoring the Earth’s plasmasphere and agnetosphere. The rover will be investigating the lunar landscape and the geological structure and layers of the moon, as well as analyzing lunar rock and soil samples. This information will be transmitted back to Earth in real time. The entire survey will be controlled by scientists on Earth.

How long will the lander and rover remain there?

The lander was designed to work for one year, and the rover will be working on the moon for at least three months. However, it is very likely that the rover will operate for an even longer time. It all depends on the machines' condition after the planned mission has concluded. For example, the earlier Chang'e-2 satellite was designed to work for half a year, but has actually been in operation for three years.

Is China planning to construct a permanent space station on the surface of the moon?

According to China's three-stage lunar exploration program (orbit the moon, land on the moon and return lunar rock and soil sample back to Earth by 2020), constructing a permanent Moon station may not be a primary objective right now.

Who "owns" the moon? How will this be decided in the years ahead?

It is hard to say who will "own" the moon. But I would say the moon belongs to all of humanity. It can be a good source of exotic minerals (such as titanium) and energy (such as helium-3), which are quite rare on Earth. The moon is expected to solve the energy demand of human beings for a quite long time, and also support our sustainable development.