China's first robotic moon rover 140-kilogram (300-pound) "Jade Rabbit" rover separated from the much larger landing vehicle early Sunday, around seven hours after the unmanned Chang'e 3 space probe touched down on a flat, Earth-facing part of the moon leaving deep tracks on its loose soil, state media reported Sunday, several hours after the country successfully carried out the world's first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades.
Later, the six-wheeled rover will survey the moon's geological structure and surface and look for natural resources for three months, while the lander will carry out scientific explorations at the landing site for one year. Jade Rabbit, or Yutu, will start sending back data and pictures from Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, a basaltic plain formed from lava that filled a crater.
China's President Xi Jinping has said he wants China to establish itself as a space superpower. The mission has inspired widespread pride in China's growing technological prowess, with a goal of sending a human to the moon some time after 2020. Chinese state-run television broadcast footage of the rocket’s perfect launch and ascent into space, where the Chang’e-3 craft set off toward the moon.
In 2007, China launched its first moon orbiter, the Chang'e-1 - named after a lunar goddess - which took images of the surface and analysed the distribution of elements. Now, The rover's mission will be to conduct geological surveys and search for natural resources after the probe touches down on the moon in mid-December as China's first spacecraft tt make a soft landing beyond Earth. The latest manned space mission in June, three astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental space laboratory, part of Beijing's quest to build a working space station by 2020.
If the lunar mission is successful, China will become the third country, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, to soft-land on the moon. Beijing stresses that its space program is for peaceful purposes. It will share the technological achievements of its manned space program with other nations, especially developing ones, and will offer to train astronauts from other countries.
“If it’s all successful, it will certainly indicate that they have really come up the learning curve in terms of technology,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College in Rhode Island who researches China’s space activities. Professor Johnson-Freese. “China’s getting a lot of prestige, which turns into geostrategic influence, from the fact that they are the third country to have manned spaceflight capabilities, that they are going to the moon."
In 2007, Chang’e-1 blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre, Sichuan, atop a Long March 3A rocket -the first step in the Chinese ambition to land robotic explorers on the Moon before 2020. Chang’e-1 has four year-long mission goals to accomplish. The first is to make three-dimensional images of many lunar landforms and outline maps of major lunar geological structures. This mapping will include the first detailed images taken of some regions near the lunar poles. Chang’e-1 was also designed to analyze the abundance of up to 14 chemical elements and their distribution across the lunar surface. Thirdly it measured the depth of the lunar soil and lastly explored the space weather between the Earth and the Moon.
Earlier in 2007, shortly after Russia claimed a vast portion of the Arctic sea floor, accelerating an international race for the natural resources as global warming opens polar access, China has announced plans to map "every inch" of the surface of the Moon and exploit the vast quantities of Helium-3 thought to lie buried in lunar rocks as part of its ambitious space-exploration program.
Ouyang Ziyuan, head of the first phase of lunar exploration, was quoted on government-sanctioned news site ChinaNews.com describing plans to collect three dimensional images of the Moon for future mining of Helium 3: "There are altogether 15 tons of helium-3 on Earth, while on the Moon, the total amount of Helium-3 can reach one to five million tons."
"Helium-3 is considered as a long-term, stable, safe, clean and cheap material for human beings to get nuclear energy through controllable nuclear fusion experiments," Ziyuan added. "If we human beings can finally use such energy material to generate electricity, then China might need 10 tons of helium-3 every year and in the world, about 100 tons of helium-3 will be needed every year."
Helium 3 fusion energy - classic Buck Rogers propulsion system- may be the key to future space exploration and settlement, requiring less radioactive shielding, lightening the load. Scientists estimate there are about one million tons of helium 3 on the moon, enough to power the world for thousands of years. The equivalent of a single space shuttle load or roughly 25 tons could supply the entire United States' energy needs for a year.
Thermonuclear reactors capable of processing Helium-3 would have to be built, along with major transport system to get various equipment to the Moon to process huge amounts of lunar soil and get the minerals back to Earth.
While this emerging international community claims it's slice of the aerospace universe, the U.S., by contrast, is no longer a leader but simply a player, according to nationally renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who points out that "we’ve moved backward just by standing still."
The Daily Galaxy via AP, NYT, and China News Service