China launched its first lunar rover Monday morning, in what is being called one giant leap forward for the Asian superpower’s ambitions in space.
The rocket, carrying lander “Chang’e-3” and rover “Jade Rabbit,” blasted off from southwestern China at 1:30 a.m. this morning. The pair, slated to land mid-December in the moon’s Sinus Iridum region (Latin for “Bay of Rainbows”), is tasked with exploring the basaltic lava plain for geological features and mineral deposits, as well as with setting up the first telescope on the moon.
The mission is also expected to preface China’s still unscheduled plans to put one of its astronauts on the moon, as well as to advance its ever grander ambitions in the cosmos, Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said.
"China's space exploration will not stop at the moon," Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief in charge of the second phase of China's lunar program, told Xinhua. "Our target is deep space."
If all goes as planned, China will be the third country to make a soft landing on the moon (in a soft landing, the craft lands un-damaged). The last mission to make such a landing on the Earth’s natural satellite was a Soviet one in 1976. The US, the second state to perfect a soft moon landing, has not visited the moon’s surface since 1972.
This morning’s mission has, like most Chinese missions to space, been heavily tapestried in tropes that stitch together the patriotic and the mythical. The lander and its rover are named after a Chinese myth in which a woman, Chang'e, swallows magic pills that transport her and her pet rabbit, "Yu Tu” (Jade Rabbit), to the moon. There she remains, white rabbit at her side, as goddess of the moon. Xinhua called the mission “a modern scientific version” of the myth.
"The probe has already entered the designated orbit," said Zhang Zhenzhong, director of the launch center in Xichang, Xinhua reported. "I now announce the launch was successful."
"We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation," he said.
Mr. Zhenzhong’s statement is in keeping with the Chinese government’s portrayal of each new national milestone in space as a medal in a race against the rest of the world to achieve cosmic goals. In 2007 and 2010, China sent lunar orbiters Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 to the moon in two feats that were heralded in China as denoting the state’s arrival into the velvet-roped club of countries that have ascended to lunar heights. The state had sent its first astronaut into space in 2003.
“It’s a symbolic representation of China’s rise,” says Michael Krepon, director of South Asia and Space Security programs at The Stimson Center in Washington, D.C, of the Chang’e-3’s launch. “China is reaching for the moon for the same reason that the US reached for the moon: space exploration has always been a source of great national pride.”
China’s activities in space are also more than symbols of its burgeoning power back on Earth’s geopolitical chessboard, says John Hickman, a professor of government and international studies at Berry College, in Georgia. Space, he says, is more and more an extension of that chessboard.
“Space is not just a place where symbolic actions take place,” says Dr. Hickman. “It’s a real place.”
Indeed, China’s interest in the moon is consistent with its recent jockeying for control of ever more “exotic locations,” including the East China Sea’s airspace, says Hickman. It’s possible to see the moon as one more such location: a mineral-rich, geostrategic base in the skies over which the world’s superpowers might, in the future, tussle for ownership, he says.
“In cosmic terms, the moon is very close to the earth, and it’s a great big hunk of un-claimed real estate,” says Hickman.
Just how close China is to overtaking space superpowers US and Russia in a space race is unclear. So far, China’s successes in space have not gone beyond what the US and Russia have already achieved. India, China’s main competitor in Asia, has not landed on the moon but did send its first orbiter to Mars last month. The state reported just one day before China’s moon launch that its craft had cleared Earth’s orbit.
China “is still playing catch-up technologically—the United States and the Soviet Union conducted similar lunar operations in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” says James Clay Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. “It has mainly been copying other countries’ accomplishments to date.”
A “major test” for China will be if can innovate the technological solutions needed to reach cosmic milestones that other countries are still working toward, says Dr. Clay Moltz.
“China’s impediment thus far has been its limited innovation,” he says. “We are still far ahead right now.”
Still, what China does have is speed and cash, he says. The emerging superpower “is moving more quickly” to achieve the cosmic milestones that Russia and the US achieved some four decades ago, he says. And the state’s space budget, though kept secret, is believed to be both big and still expanding, he says.
At the same time, Congress has repeatedly cut NASA’s budget over the last few years, and the space agency’s goals, caught up in partisan scuffles, have been many times revised.
Though the US has collaborated heavily with Russia and Japan to reach new heights in space, it has so far resisted partnering with China. Under a 2011 law, NASA is forbidden from using its funds to collaborate with China, as a security measure.
Last month, entrepreneur Dennis Tito couched his appeal to Congress for federal funds to launch a manned mission to Mars in concern that Chinese astronauts might reach the Red Planet before Americans do. Should the US wait until the 2030s to launch astronauts to Mars, as NASA has said it will, “another country – almost surely, China – will have seen our missed opportunity, and taken the lead themselves,” Mr. Tito said.
Such competition between the China and the US might be corrosive to one state’s national pride, but it could also be fuel to Earth’s fire to venture further out into the solar system, says Hickman.
“The first space race produced incredible results for everyone,” says Hickman. “Competition can be good.”