China successfully sent a Long March rocket into space on Monday morning, attempting its first soft-land of a lunar probe. The rover should land on the moon’s basaltic lava plain Bay of Rainbows in mid-December. The probe, which can measure lunar and solid crust using ground-penetrating radar, will be the first to touch down on the moon’s surface since 1976. USA Today reports:
China hopes to become the third nation, after the USA and the former Soviet Union, to achieve a difficult "soft landing" on the moon, whereby the spacecraft and equipment remain intact. An earlier Chinese orbiter made an intentional crash-landing on the moon.
Apparently, the launch was enthusiastically received by Chinese users of the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo. Again, USA Today:
"The scientists are so great," wrote an "inspired and proud" Wang Wei on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like micro-blog platform. "Of course there's still a definite gap from America sending humans to the moon, but this is already amazing," wrote Wang, an economics professor in east China's Shandong province. Other Internet users said the launch was even more stunning than the space movieGravity, currently no.1 at China's box office.
The successful landing of the rover will mark China’s completion of the second in a three-step lunar program. Next, China will launch another rover in 2020, which will collect lunar samples and could pave the way for a manned mission — a stated goal for the program. Legendary U.S. astronaut Buzz Aldrin (and others) commented that this mission’s oversized landing module could be a sign that China is already working on the technology needed to send a man to the moon.
China’s space mission is backed by the military, and is used in part as a nationalist effort to foster patriotism. According to the Associated Press, the rover and spaceship’s names — Jade Rabbit and Chang’e, respectively — reflect these ambitions: Chang’e is a mythical moon goddess and Jade Rabbit her pet. The name 'Jade Rabbit' was selected via popular vote.
China, while late to the U.S.-Soviet space race, is competing for extra-terrestrial sovereignty with India. Last month, Delhi launched its first mission to Mars. Also in space at the moment is Russia’s Expedition 38 crew, currently in orbit and the recent recipient of a holiday care package filled with space-friendly goodies.