by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Dec 16, 2013
China's Jade Rabbit rover sent back its first pictures from the moon, as officials on Monday lauded the first lunar soft landing in nearly four decades as a step forward for "mankind as a whole".
"Exploration of outer space is an unremitting pursuit of mankind," China's space agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND) said in a statement.
The successful mission reflects "the new glory of China to scale the peaks in world science and technology areas," it said, adding it was committed to exploring and using space "for peaceful purposes".
The space agency also offered to step up cooperation with other countries in the field "to utilise outer space and benefit mankind as a whole."
Images released by China's official news agency Xinhua show the lander, covered in golden foil, standing in the Sinus Iridum or Bay of Rainbows, its solar panels open to generate power.
The silver rover is named Yutu or Jade Rabbit after the pet of Chang'e, the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology.
The imprints of its tracks in the dark soil of the lunar surface can clearly be seen after it rotated to proudly display a red Chinese flag to the camera.
China first sent an astronaut into space a decade ago and is the third country to complete a lunar rover mission after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The landing is a key step forward in Beijing's ambitious military-run space programme, which include plans for a permanent orbiting station by 2020 and eventually sending a human to the moon.
The projects are seen as a symbol of China's rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as the Communist Party's success in reversing the fortunes of the once-impoverished nation.
The central government said the mission was "a milestone in the development of China's aerospace industry under the leadership of... Comrade Xi Jinping".
Chinese state-run media have covered the mission extensively, and in an editorial headlined "Great moon mission", the China Daily said its significance "goes far beyond earning the country the name of a technological powerhouse".
The Yutu was deployed at 4:35 am (2035 GMT Saturday), several hours after the Chang'e-3 probe landed on the moon, said the official news agency Xinhua, and the photo session began at about 11:42 pm after the rover moved a few metres away from the lander.
The colour images were transmitted live to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, where President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang watched the broadcast.
Ma Xingrui, chief commander of China's lunar programme, declared the mission a "complete success" after the photographs showed the lander and rover were working, Xinhua said.
'Made in China' makes it to the moon
The potential to extract the moon's resources has been touted as a key driver behind Beijing's space programme, with the celestial body believed to hold uranium, titanium, and other minerals.
But the phenomenal cost of missions means such projects are not economically viable, experts say.
"China wants to go to the moon for geostrategic reasons and domestic legitimacy," said China space expert Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
"With the US exploration moribund at best, that opens a window for China to be perceived as the global technology leader -- though the US still has more, and more advanced, assets in space."
SASTIND spokesman Wu Zhijian admitted that "despite current progress, China still lags behind space giants like the United States and Russia in many aspects".
"We need to work harder and move faster," he told a briefing.
News of the landing quickly made an impact on China's hugely popular Internet message boards, topping the list of searched items.
"Myth has become reality at this moment," wrote one user Monday. "'Made in China' has made it to the moon."
Before the landing -- the most difficult part of the mission -- the probe slowed down from 1,700 metres (5,610 feet) per second and then hovered for about 20 seconds, using sensors and 3D imaging to identify a flat area.
Thrusters were then deployed 100 metres from the lunar surface to gently guide the craft into position. The landing process started at 9:00 pm on Saturday and lasted for about 12 minutes.
The rover will spend about three months exploring the moon's surface.
It can climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200 metres per hour, according to the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute.
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