HONG KONG —
China’s latest display of ambition in space involves sending a Jade Rabbit roaming across the Bay of Rainbows.
A rocket blasted off from southwest China early Monday, carrying the country’s first robotic lunar rover, the Jade Rabbit, which will explore a plain on the moon that, despite its colorful name, is a dark expanse of hardened lava.
If successful, the Chang’e-3 mission will be China’s first “soft landing” on the moon — which allows a craft to operate after descending — and the first such landing by any country since 1976, when the Soviet Union sent a probe. The last U.S. expedition on the moon’s surface was a manned visit in 1972. Chinese state-run television broadcast footage of the rocket’s untroubled launch and ascent into space, where the Chang’e-3 craft set off toward the moon.
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For China’s Communist Party under President Xi Jinping, such feats embody his rallying cry of a “Chinese dream” of patriotic unity under one-party rule, supported by technological advances and rising international stature.
“If it’s all successful, it will certainly indicate that they have really come up the learning curve in terms of technology,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island who researches China’s space activities. Johnson-Freese emphasized that she was giving her own views.
“China’s getting a lot of prestige, which turns into geostrategic influence, from the fact that they are the third country to have manned spaceflight capabilities, that they are going to the moon,” she said.
The Chinese state-run news media have responded to the launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center with an outpouring of jubilation. That is likely to reach a crescendo in about two weeks, when the landing vehicle is scheduled to descend on the moon and release the Jade Rabbit, or Yutu, robotic rover to start sending back data and pictures from Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows, a basaltic plain formed from lava that filled a crater.
But as well as patriotic pride, China’s space activities are generating skills to enhance the country’s science, satellites and military, experts said. China’s advances in space include five manned flights, which are intended to pave the way for a space station. The country is also developing an array of new satellites, including the BeiDou navigation system that will have a chain of 35 satellites. Many of the advances used for better rockets and space guidance can be applied in missiles.
“Simple prestige is certainly a key driver in a lot of China’s space programs, in particular the manned space program,” said Mark Stokes, the executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a research organization in Washington focused on security issues in Asia. “It’s also a way to mobilize resources and to concentrate resources in a way that could result in certain types of spinoff technologies.”
Above all, China has been learning how to orchestrate complicated engineering tasks and to surmount the poor bureaucratic coordination that has often frustrated such efforts, said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington who has studied China’s space programs.
“We in the U.S., in the West, tend to focus on the widget aspect of China’s space progress,” Cheng said. “But I would say that what we sometimes miss is how important these organizational changes are. All the Chinese space efforts are efforts at improving their systems’ engineering.”
China’s military drives the country’s space program, and that has caused wariness among Western governments. Suspicions have been magnified by allegations that China has stolen information for its space and missile programs. Congress passed a law in 2011 that bans NASA from developing bilateral contacts with China, although multilateral contacts are not proscribed.
But China’s program has reached a point where deeper cooperation with the United States or Russia would make little difference, said Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nonetheless, he supports closer contacts to foster cooperation and reduce mistrust.
“They don’t really need to rely on any outside sources to continue to make the progress that they’re making,” Kulacki said.
China established a foothold in space in 1970, when a small, primitive satellite beamed back an ode to Mao Zedong, “The East is Red.” From the 1980s, the Communist Party leadership began to develop bigger plans, and in 2003, China sent its first astronaut into space. China has since carried out four more manned missions.
The Chang’e lunar exploration program, named after a moon goddess, began in 2007 with a craft that orbited the moon, and the Chang’e-2 mission launched in 2010 sent back more detailed images of the moon, including of the area where Chang’e-3 will land. (The Chang’e-1 craft hurtled into the moon in a controlled, hard landing in 2009.)
For the Chang’e-3 mission, the rover — a solar-powered, six-wheeled vehicle similar to ones the United States has sent to Mars — will spend three months exploring, using radar to collect data on rocks up to 328 feet below the surface, Ouyang Ziyuan, a senior consultant to the mission, told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. A future mission that could take place in several years would be intended to bring back rocks and other samples from the moon.