China Launches 'Jade Rabbit' Rover to the Moon

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China on Sunday launched its first spacecraft to the surface of moon, with landing of the six-wheeled rover named “Yutu” — Chinese for “jade rabbit” – expected in two weeks.

The mission, known as Chang’e 3, would be the first probe to make a soft landing on moon since 1976.

It follows a pair of Chinese orbiters, Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2, launched in 2007 and 2010, respectively.

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Yutu blasted off aboard a Long March rocket from China’s Xichang spaceport at 12:30 p.m. EST on Sunday, 1:30 a.m. Monday Beijing time.

The rocket put the spacecraft into a highly elliptical orbit that stretches as far as 223,694 miles or 360,000 km from Earth. Over the next four days, the probe will adjust its orbit so that it can be captured by the moon’s gravity.

“The biggest challenge still remains — to land this safely onto the surface,” Xu Yansong, spokesman with the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, said during a live broadcast of launch on China Central Television’s website.

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“It will need a number of maneuvers and it will need a few days in the lunar orbit where it will be re-adjusted to the right position before descending from a 200-km (124-mile) altitude all the way to a 4-meter (13-feet) altitude, and then shut down the main engine for its free-fall onto the lunar surface,” he said.

Yutu and its landing platform are equipped with an array of cameras and science instruments, including a telescope and ground-penetrating radar.

The rover is expected to spend up to about three months driving around the lunar surface. Its targeted landing site is called the Bay of Rainbows.

The last lander on the moon was Russia’s 1976 Luna 24 mission.

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Image: Camera reportedly aboard the third stage of China’s Long March rocket captures a view of the Chang’e 3 spacecraft beginning its journey to the moon. Credit: CCTV/Screenshot by Irene Klotz/Discovery News.

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