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China's lunar probe soft-lands on moon

China's lunar probe Chang'e-3, with the country's first moon rover onboard, successfully landed on the moon on Saturday night, marking the first time that China has sent a spacecraft to soft land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.

Photo taken on Dec. 14, 2013 shows the lunar probe Chang'e-3 on the screen of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center in Beijing, capital of China. China's lunar probe Chang'e-3 has started soft-landing on the moon as it began decelerating from 15 km above the lunar surface. Photo: Xinhua

The lunar probe began to carry out soft-landing on the moon at 9 p.m. Saturday and touched down in Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, 11 minutes later, according to Beijing Aerospace Control Center.

During the process, the probe decelerated from 15 km above the moon, stayed hovering at 100 meters from the lunar surface to use sensors to assess the landing area to avoid obstacles and locate the final landing spot, and descended slowly onto the surface.

The success made China the third country, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to soft-land on the moon.

Compared to those other two countries, which have successfully conducted 13 soft-landings on the moon, China's soft-landing mission designed the suspension and obstacle-avoiding phases to survey the landing area much more precisely through fitted detectors, scientists said.

The probe's soft-landing is the most difficult task during the mission, said Wu Weiren, the lunar program's chief designer.

Chang'e-3 relied on auto-control for descent, range and velocity measurements, finding the proper landing point, and free-falling.

The probe is equipped with shock absorbers in its four "legs" to cushion the impact of the landing, making Chang'e-3 the first Chinese spacecraft with "legs."

Chang'e-3 adopted a variable thrust engine completely designed and made by Chinese scientists. It can realize continuous variation of thrust power ranging from 1,500 to 7,500 newtons, according to Wu Weiren.

The soft-landing was carried out 12 days after the probe blasted off on an enhanced Long March-3B carrier rocket.

Chang'e-3 includes a lander and a moon rover called "Yutu" (Jade Rabbit).

Yutu's tasks include surveying the moon's geological structure and surface substances and looking for natural resources. The lander will operate there for one year while the rover will be there for three months.

Chang'e-3 is part of the second phase of China's lunar program, which includes orbiting, landing and returning to the Earth. It follows the success of the Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 missions in 2007 and 2010.

The successful landing shows China has the ability of in-situ exploration on an extraterrestrial body, said Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief in charge of the second phase of China's lunar program.

A renewed moon fever has sprung up in recent years following the lunar probe climax in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chang'e-3 is the world's first soft-landing of a probe on the moon in nearly four decades. The last such soft-landing was carried out by the Soviet Union in 1976.

"Compared to the last century's space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, mankind's current return to the moon is more based on curiosity and exploration of the unknown universe," Sun said.

"China's lunar program is an important component of mankind's activities to explore peaceful use of space," according to the engineer-in-chief.

For an ancient civilization like China, landing on the moon embodies another meaning. The moon, a main source for inspiration, is one of the most important themes in Chinese literature and ancient Chinese myths, including that about Chang'e, a lady who took her pet "Yutu" to fly toward the moon, where she became a goddess.

"Though people have discovered that the moon is bleached and desolate, it doesn't change its splendid role in Chinese traditional culture," said Zhang Yiwu, a professor with Peking University.

"Apart from scientific exploration, the lunar probe is a response to China's traditional culture and imagination. China's lunar program will proceed with the beautiful legends," Zhang said.

"I am so excited about the news. It carries my space dream," a netizen "Roger-Kris" posted on the Sina Weibo. "I am now so interested in space and I want to study science when I go to college."

"I am looking forward to seeing more pictures sent back by Chang'e-3," he said.


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