China’s Jade Rabbit rover vehicle has sent back photos from the moon after the first lunar soft landing in nearly four decades marked a huge advance in the country’s ambitious space program.
The Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, was deployed at 4:35am (0735 Saturday AEDT), several hours after the Chang’e-3 probe landed on the moon, said the official news agency Xinhua.
The rover and lander began taking photos of each other late Sunday, including one that showed the bright red and yellow stars of the Chinese flag on the Jade Rabbit as it stands on the moon’s surface.
Xinhua said the photographing began at about 11:42pm after the rover moved to a spot a few metres away from the lander.
The colour images were transmitted live to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, where Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang watched the broadcast.
China is the third country to complete a lunar rover mission after the United States and the former Soviet Union – a decade after it first sent an astronaut into space.
Beijing plans to establish a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send a human to the moon.
The mission is seen as a symbol of China’s rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as the Communist Party’s success in reversing the fortunes of the once-impoverished nation.
Ma Xingrui, chief commander of China’s lunar program, declared the mission a “complete success” after the photographs showed the lander and rover were working, Xinhua said.
A message from the party’s Central Committee, the State Council – China’s cabinet – and the Central Military Commission branded the touchdown a “milestone” in China’s space program, as cited by Xinhua late Sunday.
“One Giant Leap for China,” read the headline in Hong Kong’s Sunday Morning Post, evoking the words in 1969 of American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.
The landing, nearly two weeks after blast-off, was the first of its kind since the former Soviet Union’s mission in 1976.
The potential to extract the moon’s resources has been touted as a key reason behind Beijing’s space program, with the moon believed to hold uranium, titanium, and other mineral resources, as well as offering the possibility of solar power generation.
“China wants to go to the moon for geostrategic reasons and domestic legitimacy,” said China space expert Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“With the US exploration moribund at best, that opens a window for China to be perceived as the global technology leader – though the US still has more, and more advanced, assets in space.”