HONG KONG — China on Saturday became the third country to steer a spacecraft onto the moon, after its unmanned Chang’e-3 probe settled onto the Bay of Rainbows, state-run television reported.
The United States and the Soviet Union are the other countries to have accomplished so-called soft landings on the moon — in which a craft can work after landing — and 37 years have passed since the last such mission.
The arrival of the Chang’e-3 after a 13-day journey from Earth was reported on Chinese state television. At the time of the last soft landing, by the Soviet Union in 1976, Mao Zedong was a month from death and China was in the twilight of his chaotic Cultural Revolution.
Now China, much richer and stronger, aspires to become a globally respected power, and the government sees a major presence in space as a key to acquiring technological prowess, military strength, and status.
Chinese media celebrated the landing as a demonstration of the country’s growing scientific stature.
Television reports showed engineers at the mission control center in Beijing crying, embracing, and taking pictures.
“The dream of the Chinese people across thousands of years of landing on the moon has finally been realized with Chang’e,” said state-run China News Service. “By successfully joining the international deep-space exploration club, we finally have the right to share the resources on the moon with developed countries.”
The Chang’e-3 landing craft carried a solar-powered, robotic rover called the Jade Rabbit, or Yutu in Mandarin Chinese, which was to emerge several hours later to begin exploring Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, a relatively smooth plain formed from solidified lava. According to a Chinese legend, Chang’e is a moon goddess, accompanied by a Jade Rabbit that can brew potions that offer immortality.
“It’s a very ambitious mission in the sense that it’s a rover with a fair amount of instruments on it,” Andrew Chaikin, a space historian and an expert on lunar travel who lives in Vermont, said in a telephone interview. The instruments include radar to gather information about what lies as deep as 300 feet below the surface, Chinese space scientists have said.
But the mission will also hone new technology for future space trips.
The landing craft appears capable of carrying a payload more than a dozen times the weight of the 309-pound rover, said Paul D. Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “Although it will do some new science, its real value is to flight-qualify a new and potentially powerful lunar surface payload delivery system,” Spudis said.