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China prepares a lunar soft landing and rover exploration with Chang’e-3 before the year’s end

chang'e-3As private spaceflight initiatives make news in the United States, the Chinese government’s space programme continues to press ahead.  In June three of their astronauts (dubbed taikonauts) spent 15 days in orbit and docked with their Tiangong-1 space station.  Now they plan to land a probe on the moon before the end of the year.  Chang’e-3 will soft-land on the lunar surface and use a radio-controlled rover to move across the terrain sending back images of what it sees, and digging into the lunar surface to analyze samples.  Chang’e-3 will remain on the moon, as will a follow-up mission, but later ones are planned to return samples to Earth.  And of course China has declared its intention to put humans on the moon, and is making steady progress towards that objective.

To some extend China has been catching up with space achievements the US made early on in its space programme, but these are necessary steps on the way to more ambitious programmes.  You have to learn docking, living in space, soft landings and lunar lift-offs before you can implement a manned mission.  But the Chinese are nothing if not ambitious, with a Mars landing as a distant objective, and their space programme enjoys popular support as a source of pride.  And at a time when NASA seems to be treading water, with no clear vision of its next series of goals, the Chinese programme is moving steadily ahead to where they want to be.  If successful, Chang’e-3 will complete the first lunar soft landing since 1976.


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