Science

Jade Rabbit moon rover landing marks new leap for China

DPA Beijing | Updated on March 13, 2018 Published on December 13, 2013

The planned landing of China’s Jade Rabbit rover on the moon on Saturday will boost national prestige and set another landmark for the country’s space scientists, analysts said.

The Chang'e-3 spacecraft will make a power-assisted, or "soft", lunar landing at Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, a site selected because of its relatively level terrain.

The Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover will roll out of the spacecraft to collect soil samples, survey the moon’s geological structure and search for resources for about three months.

Scientists said one focus of China’s lunar soil analysis is the level of helium-3, an isotope that could potentially be used in nuclear fusion in the distant future.

International scientists have studied the potential of helium-3 for use in nuclear fusion since the 1950s, but the Earth contains only an estimated 15 tons, making the mineral a “holy grail” of lunar exploration.

"Theoretically, there is helium-3 on the moon," said Jiao Weixin, a space scientist at Beijing University, "but it is very difficult to extract it."

"You need to dig deep and then heat the soil to hundreds of degrees so the gas can be released," he said.

Speculation has mounted over whether the lunar landing could serve as a prelude to an attempt to send astronauts to the moon in the next decade or so.

Chinese officials have played down expectations of a manned landing and the Government has not announced any programme to send astronauts on a lunar mission, saying only that it is conducting preliminary research.

But if China’s lunar programme maintains its near-perfect record — a record matched by its separate manned space programme — China’s aims are likely to become ever more ambitious, said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space programme at the US Naval War College.

"If their successes with both programmes continue, it is likely China will combine the programmes toward a human spaceflight programme to the moon — only the second [nation after the US] to do so," Johnson-Freese told dpa.

Jiao agreed that if each step in the unmanned lunar programme succeeds, "it will be a foundation for sending a man to the moon." Australian space analyst Morris Jones said a manned lunar mission by China would not be possible before 2025.

The lunar programme was designed "for scientific exploration, national prestige and technological development," Jones said.

"China has set its sights on the moon for all the many reasons the United States did more than 40 years ago, including technology spin-offs, economic spill-over, military applications of the dual use technology," Johnson-Freese said.

But perhaps the most important motivation for the moon landing is "the prestige that occurs from doing so, prestige that has significant geo-strategic implications and benefits," she said.

The lunar landing is part of China’s long-term plan to develop its space industry over the next decade.

In June, three astronauts spent 15 days in space, completing docking manoeuvres and experiments inside a rudimentary space laboratory that forms a key stage in China’s quest to construct a permanent space station around 2020.

In 2003, China became the third country to launch an astronaut into space after Russia and the United States.

It has built a fourth space centre on the southern island of Hainan to launch China’s next generation of Long March-5 rockets designed to carry 25-ton payloads, including multiple launches of commercial satellites, large space stations and deep-space probe satellites.

The Jade Rabbit is scheduled to be followed in around 2017 by another rover capable of returning to Earth with mineral samples.

As part of the long-term plans for deep-space exploration, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp is researching a Mars probe and the building of a lunar base — another indication that manned lunar missions are likely.

The whole space programme is closely supervised by the ruling Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, both of which are led by President Xi Jinping.

The successes of the programme "are significant for China’s one-party rulers to garner support from the population at a time when China is very nationalistic," Johnson-Freese said.

Jiao agreed that the programme was "symbolic for the strenghth of a nation."

"However, the main meaning is to show the spirit of exploration by human beings," he said.

Published on December 13, 2013
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