China loves dreaming big, and making it all come true. The emerging power has set its eyes firmly on conquering the next frontier: the Moon. This new-age lunar quest of China for is not just about proving her prowess in space exploration, but is also deeply rooted in mythical longings.
Ancient Chinese folktales often tell the story of an immortal couple in heaven- Chang’e and her legendary archer husband Houyi. Banished by the Jade Emperor for the murder of his nine sons by Houyi, the couple was condemned to live as mortals on earth. Upset at seeing his wife miserable over the loss of her immortality, Houyi then set out on a journey to find the Elixir of life. At the end of his quest he met the Queen Mother of the West who agreed to give him the elixir, but warned him that each person would only need half the pill to become immortal. Houyi then brought the pill home and stored it in a case. A curious Chang’e soon opened it and found the pill just as Houyi was returning home. Nervous, that her husband would catch her discovering the contents of the case; she accidentally swallowed the entire pill causing her to float into the sky because of the overdose. Although Houyi wanted to shoot her in order to prevent her from floating further, he could not bear to aim the arrow at her. Chang’e then kept on floating until she landed on the Moon. Lonely and without her companion, the Chinese believe that she still resides there and perceive her to be their Lunar Goddess.
Keeping up with tradition, when China launched its first lunar probe in 2007, the Chinese named their robotic spacecraft named Chang’e 1 in the goddess’ honour. A second unmanned probe, named Chang’e 2, was launched in 2010 and it is the third instalment of the Chang’e series that has sparked off international headlines.
Dubbed Chang’e 3, this robotic lunar rover marks a significant milestone in China’s space exploration history as it will perform the first lunar soft landing since the Russian Luna 24 mission in 1976. The lunar
orbiter, operated by China National Space Administration, will incorporate a robotic lander and a rover in its structure. Designed with the objective of exploring the lunar surface independently, Chang’e 3 marks the start of the second phase in China’s three-stage lunar exploration program. The mission, which is scheduled for launch later this year, is expected to perform several key functions.
The mission’s rover standing 1.5m tall and weighing 120kg is designed to explore an area of 3 square kilometres on the moon during its 3-month mission. With a payload capacity of approximately 20 kg the rover is expected to transmit videos of the lunar surface in real time. Its advantage lies in the fact that the rover can perform simple analysis of soil samples by digging up to a depth of nearly 30m. Intelligently designed to navigate on inclines, the rover is also equipped with automatic sensors to prevent it from colliding with other objects.
The lunar mission’s stationary lander, on the other hand, will serve as the world’s first lunar-based astronomical observatory and will capture images of the Earth and other celestial bodies through its ultraviolet camera and an astronomical telescope. Data recorded in this process will ultimately help scientists in making long-term observations about solar activity near the earth and light variations of celestial bodies.
Like its orbiting predecessors, the Chang’e 3 mission is planned as a precursor to further robotic lunar exploration missions. With scientists in China considering the possibility of a manned landing by 2025, the Lunar goddess might just chance up on mortal company soon.
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