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Chinese moon lander on the verge of launch

Posted: November 27, 2013

China has scheduled the launch of an ambitious robotic lunar rover as soon as Sunday on a quest to achieve the first soft landing on the moon in more than three decades.

Artist's concept of the Chang'e 3 lander and rover. Credit: Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering
The Chang'e 3 mission is China's third moon probe, following two successful orbiters that surveyed the lunar surface and mapped landing zones.

Chinese officials say the mission is set for launch in early December, with landing on the moon scheduled for mid-December. China has not officially disclosed the mission's launch or landing dates.

But an aeronautical notice issued to warn pilots of an impending launch indicates the solar-powered rover is set for liftoff Sunday shortly after 1720 GMT (12:20 p.m. EST) from the Xichang space center in southwestern China's Sichuan province.

The launch will come in the middle of the night in China at approximately 1:20 a.m. Beijing time.

A Long March 3B rocket will boost the probe on course toward the moon, where the spacecraft will enter orbit five days after launch before dropping to the lunar surface for landing some time in mid-December, according to Wu Zhijian, a spokesperson for China's State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, or SASTIND, which is managing the Chang'e 3 mission.

The mission is China's first try to land a spacecraft on the moon - or any other celestial body - and it marks a new phase in the country's exploration efforts, which include a lunar sample return mission before the end of the decade.

The lander reportedly weighs about 3,800 kilograms, or about 8,377 pounds, fully loaded with propellant. It's dimensions measure a bit larger than a sports utility vehicle.

The Chang'e 3 lander is enclosed inside the Long March 3B rocket's payload fairing. Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.
The Chang'e 3 lander will descend from lunar orbit and use rocket engines to settle softly on the moon's surface in a region known as the Bay of Rainbows, or Sinus Iridum, on the upper-left part of the moon as viewed from Earth.

The Bay of Rainbows has never been explored by a moon lander before. The Chang'e 2 mission, China's second lunar orbiter, mapped the Bay of Rainbows in detail after its launch in October 2010.

Once the four-legged lander touches down, the mission's rover will drive onto the lunar surface on a ramp.

The rover has six wheels and has a mass of about 140 kilograms, or about 308 pounds, according to Xinhua. It is powered by solar energy but carries radioisotope heater units to keep the rover warm on cold lunar nights, according to a paper written by researchers at the Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering and published in Science China.

Chinese officials announced Tuesday the rover is named "Yutu" after a campaign to solicit naming suggestions from the public. Yutu was the most popular submission, and it means "jade rabbit" in Chinese, Xinhua reported.

The Chang'e lunar program is named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, and Yutu the rabbit is her companion in Chinese mythology.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.