China cemented its reputation as the fastest rising star on the space scene this weekend by landing a rover on the moon—a challenging feat pulled off by only two nations before: the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“This is a very big deal indeed,” says lunar scientist Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “Landing on the moon is not something easily attained—it requires precision maneuvering, tracking, computation and engineering. It is a delicate task and the Chinese success reflects a mature, evolving and capable program.”
The Chang’e 3 mission touched down on the moon Saturday (December 14) after launching December 1 on a Chinese rocket. The lander included a four-legged stationary probe and a six-wheeled robotic rover that, with mast deployed, stands about 1.5 meters tall. The spacecraft is the first man-made object to land on the moon in 37 years, and coincidentally touched down exactly 41 years after the last humans departed the lunar surface. Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt launched off the moon to begin their return trip on December 14, 1972, space history expert Robert Pearlman points out at collectSPACE.com.
The Chang’e 3 landing is “no small achievement,” says Roger Launius, associate director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “There is a measure of pride at home and prestige abroad that accrues to the Chinese space program.” At the same time, he adds, China is replicating an achievement the U.S. and the Soviet Union mastered decades ago, and one that private teams, some of which are made up of undergraduate and graduate students, are aiming to match in the near future for the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. “Some people who might be concerned that the Chinese are demonstrating these capabilities, and who are running around with their hair on fire—I’m not sure that’s appropriate.”
Those in a tizzy about China’s growing space prowess might include the members of Congress, led by Congressman Frank Wolf (R–Va.), who passed a law in 2011 that explicitly forbids NASA from cooperating with China on any space activities.