China’s lunar rover is on its way to the Moon. The Chang’e-3 spacecraft lifted off successfully in the wee hours of 2 December from the Xichang launch centre in Sichuan.
A Long March 3B rocket lofted the probe into Earth orbit and then on a trajectory directly towards the Moon. As the rocket separated, a camera on board captured spectacular images of Chang’e-3 on its way (pictured).
Barring disaster, the probe is expected to reach lunar orbit in about four days. A date for the rover’s landing on the surface has not been officially announced, but it is expected to take place around 14 December. The landing site is thought to be the Sinus Iridum region on the lunar near side.
Chang’e-3 represents the first rover to visit the Moon since the Soviet Lunokhod-2 mission in 1973, and the first soft landing of any kind since the Soviet Luna-24 mission in 1976.
Chang’e-3 follows two earlier Chinese lunar orbiters. It carries a six-wheeled rover named Yutu, the ‘jade rabbit’ companion of the Moon goddess Chang’e. Its scientific instruments include cameras, an ultraviolet telescope and an X-ray spectrometer mounted on a robotic arm.
In other space developments, the Indian Space Research Organization conducted a rocket burn aboard its Mars Orbiter Mission — India’s first Mars probe — on 1 December. That probe had been circling Earth since its launch last month. It is now headed for Mars, with an expected arrival in September 2014.