China hailed the successful launch of a moon rover in the early hours of Monday, in a project that the government hopes will catapult its plans to put a man on the moon sometime after 2020 and explore deeper regions of space.
Zhang Zhenrong, director of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, declared the first phase of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe a success as the rocket carrying it entered its scheduled orbit, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“We will strive for our space dream as part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation,” Mr Zhang said, echoing the rhetoric used by China’s president, Xi Jinping, to mark the country’s emergence as a more confident and assertive actor on the global stage.
The launch of the rover, known as the Yutu or “Jade Rabbit”, has received blanket media coverage in the domestic media, in contrast to the strictly censored coverage of Beijing’s decision on November 23 to declare an “air defence identification zone” over the East China Sea.
The controversial ADIZ, which overlaps with Japan’s own air defense zone and covers a contested island chain administered by Tokyo, sparked heated diplomatic exchanges with China’s neighbors and the US. Joe Biden, US vice-president, arrives in Beijing on Tuesday in a visit that will focus on calming regional tensions.
The Jade Rabbit rover is expected to land on the moon in about two weeks’ time, after which it will beam geological data and astronomical observations back to earth.
If successful, the mission will make China only the third country to achieve a lunar “soft landing”. Such missions involve the safe landing and operation of exploration craft on the moon’s surface.
China is engaged in a 21st century Asian space race with another regional rival, India, which on Sunday said it had successfully propelled a Mars probe from earth’s orbit towards its distant target. The Mangalyaan spacecraft, which took off last month, is scheduled to reach the red planet in September.
Public reaction to the Jade Rabbit mission has been largely positive in China. But some people on Weibo, the country’s Twitter equivalent, expressed doubts about the wisdom of replicating what the US first did more than 40 years ago.
Others defended the strategy. “The development of our space program has been rather slow, but if we don’t do this first the gap between China and the US will become even bigger,” said Huang Hai, deputy dean at Beihang University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Mars is still too far a leap for us. It’s like learning how to walk before we try to run.”
“China’s space program will not stop at the moon,” added Sun Huixian, a senior Chinese space official. “Our target is deep space.”