Chinese unmanned spacecraft lands on moon, 1st since 1976

Chinese flag at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Dec. 13, 2013.</p>

Chinese flag at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Dec. 13, 2013.

China succeeded Saturday in the world's first soft landing of a lunar probe on the moon in nearly 40 years, becoming the third country do so after the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The unmanned Chang'e-3 spacecraft is carrying a six-wheeled rover called Yutu — Jade Rabbit — which will drive around the lunar surface for at least three months to study the moon's geological structure and collect data.

China has said the mission includes looking for natural resources, with some experts pointing out that one of its goals is to mine helium-3, a possible future fuel for nuclear fusion reactors.

It has also said a telescope will be set up for the first time in history to study the Earth's plasmasphere.

Chang'e-3 started the soft-landing process at 9 p.m. and touched down on an unstudied lava plain known as Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows, 11 minutes later, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The last soft landing was in 1976 by the Soviet Union's Luna-24.

Chinese state-run television CCTV reported live about the landing and showed images of the moon's surface as the craft touched down.

Chang'e-3 began decelerating from 15 kilometers above the moon and located the landing spot, while using sensors to avoid obstacles, by hovering at 100 meters from the lunar surface, according to the news agency.

China achieved its first lunar landing after putting the probe into space by a Long March-3B rocket that blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan on Dec. 2.

The Chang'e-3 spacecraft is named after a woman in Chinese mythology who flew with her white pet rabbit, Yutu, to the moon, where she became a goddess.

The 140-kilogram rover, which has two wings and four mechanical legs, runs on solar power and will be remotely controlled from the command center.

China has said space exploration is part of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation, a slogan promoted by President Xi Jinping.

Since sending an astronaut into space for the first time in 2003, China has quickly built up a military-backed space program.

It is aiming to bring samples from the moon to Earth by 2020.

It also has plans to realize a manned lunar mission by around 2020 and set up a manned space station on the moon after 2030.

The Chang'e-3 mission constitutes the second phase of China's lunar exploration program, which includes orbiting, landing and coming back to Earth, following the success of previous lunar probes conducted by Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 in 2007 and 2010.

"The successful landing shows China has the ability of in situ exploration on an extraterrestrial body," Xinhua quoted Sun Huixian, deputy engineer-in-chief in charge of the second phase of the program, as saying.