China has confirmed it is on track to land a rover on the Moon later this year to scoot across the surface analyzing dust and rock samples.
"Chang'e-3 has officially entered its launch stage, following its research and manufacture period," reports the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.
The Chang'e-3 probe, first revealed last year, is a 100kg, six-wheeled rover that will spend three months traversing the lunar landscape under human control. The spacecraft will use the Moon's gravity to slow down, orbit the satellite, and then soft-land using rocket propulsion.
This will be the first time the Chinese have landed a spacecraft on a non-terrestrial surface and the Chang'e-3 will be a crucial test of both Chinese aeronautics and rocketry control systems. The rover will pave the way for a future manned mission to the Moon, and a possible space colony on the surface.
"The Chang'e-3 mission makes best use of a plethora of innovative technology. It is an extremely difficult mission, that carries great risk," said Ma Xingrui, head of China's space exploration body and chief commander of the lunar program.
The first Chang'e probe was launched 2007 and completed a 3D map of the Moon's surface before being intentionally crashed into the planetoid. Chang'e 2, launched in 2010, carried out further mapping 100km off the Moon's surface before being directed out to fly by the asteroid Toutatis and is now heading out into the Solar System.
Like NASA's early rovers on Mars, the Chang'e-3 will be primarily solar powered and will carry a ground-facing radar on its belly capable of penetrating up to 30 meters into the lunar regolith, as well as a alpha particle X-ray spectrometer and an infrared spectrometer.
China plans a manned mission to the lunar surface possibly as soon as 2017 – although he authorities aren’t setting themselves a Kennedyesque deadline and say they'll go when they are ready. Once there, however, the Chinese government has said it plans to build the first manned lunar outpost, an objective NASA has already abandoned. ®