China's first lunar probe to land on the moon this weekend

The Chang'e-3 rocket carrying the Jade Rabbit rover blasts off, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwest province of Sichuan, China, on December 2.

Story highlights

  • A Chinese spacecraft, Chang'e-3, is due to land on the moon this weekend
  • Chang'e-3 will release a moon rover to collect soil samples and study the lunar surface
  • The solar-powered robot contains a telescope and ultraviolet camera
  • China is one of three countries to make a soft-landing on the moon

China's first lunar rover is expected to land on the moon on Saturday, less than two weeks after it blasted off from Earth, according to Chinese media reports.

The landing will make China one of only three nations -- after the United States and the former Soviet Union -- to "soft-land" on the moon's surface, and the first to do so in more than three decades.

Chang'e-3, the unmanned spacecraft carrying the rover, is due to touch down on a lava plain named Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows, shortly after 3 p.m. GMT (10 a.m. ET) on December 14, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

On landing, Chang'e-3 will release Jade Rabbit (called Yutu in Chinese) -- a six-wheeled lunar rover equipped with at least four cameras and two mechanical legs that can dig up soil samples to a depth of 30 meters. The solar-powered rover will patrol the moon's surface, studying the structure of the lunar crust as well as soil and rocks, for at least three months.

The robot's name was decided by a public online poll and comes from a Chinese myth about the pet white rabbit of a goddess, Chang'e, who is said to live on the moon.

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Weighing 140 kilograms, the slow-moving rover carries an optical telescope for astronomical observations and a powerful ultraviolet camera that will monitor how solar activity affects the various layers -- troposphere, stratosphere and ionosphere -- that make up the Earth's atmosphere, China's information technology ministry said in a statement.

The Jade Rabbit is also equipped with radioisotope heater units, allowing it to function during the cold lunar nights when temperatures plunge as low as -180°C (-292°F).

China has rapidly built up its space program since it first sent an astronaut into space in 2003. In 2012, the country conducted 18 space launches, according to the Pentagon.

The Chang'e-3 mission constitutes the second phase of China's moon exploration program, which includes orbiting, landing and returning to Earth.

In 2010, China captured images of the landing site for the 2013 probe, the Bay of Rainbows, which is considered to be one of the most picturesque parts of the moon.

Within the next decade, China expects to open a permanent space station in the Earth's orbit.

Timeline: China's race into space

But scientists in the United States have expressed concern that the Chang'e-3 mission could skew the results of a NASA study of the moon's dust environment. The spacecraft's descent is likely to create a noticeable plume on the moon's surface that could interfere with research already being carried out by NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), Jeff Plescia, chair of NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group told news site, Space.com in November.

The Chang'e-3 spacecraft blasted off from a Long March 3B rocket in China's Sichuan province on December 2, and reached the moon's orbit at 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from its surface less than five days later.

On Tuesday, it descended into an elliptical orbit with its lowest point just 15 kilometers off the lunar surface, a spokesperson for China's Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense told Xinhua.

The Soviet Union's Luna 24 probe was the last space mission to land on the moon in August, 1976 -- four years after the United States launched the manned Apollo 17 mission.