Before This Year is Out, China’s Rover Should Be Cruising the Moon

China’s Chang’e 3 rover is slated to launch by the end of the year

A photo of the lunar surface captured by China’s Chang’e 2 probe.
A photo of the lunar surface captured by China’s Chang’e 2 probe. Huang Jingwen / Xinhua

China was late to the space race. They got started in 1970, thirteen years after Russia’s Sputnik and twelve after America’s Explorer 1. For decades after the Chinese seemed content to focus on putting satellites in orbit. But the turn of the millennium saw the China National Space Administration quicken its pace—and once China’s space program revved up, it’s been quick, very quick, to catch up.

In 2003, China flew its first taikonaut into space. Then came the lunar probes, Chang’e 1 and 2, and the space station, Tiangong-1. Now, says Space, the agency has doubled down on their schedule to send a robotic rover, Chang’e 3, to the Moon by the end of the year. The mission has been in the works for some time, but now, with production and testing done, says Space, the mission has “officially entered the launch phase.”

The robotic rover is step two of China’s three phase lunar program:

The next goal in China’s moon program will be to launch a probe that can return samples from the moon to Earth. That moon sample-return mission is expected to fly before 2020 under the name Chang’e 5, officials with China’s space agency have said.

Other than the US, Russia and China, only Japan, India, and the multinational European Space Agency have explored the Moon through probes and landers.

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