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Moon landing a big step for China

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 6:54 p.m.
REUTERS
Footage taken by a camera on the bottom of the Chang’e-3 lunar probe is of its descent onto the surface of the moon on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013.

BEIJING — China landed an unmanned exploration vehicle on the moon on Saturday, becoming the third country to do so.

After days in orbit around the moon, the lunar probe known as Chang'e-3 touched down on the surface in the Bay of Rainbows shortly after 9 p.m. Beijing time, the Beijing Aerospace Control Center reported. The landing appeared to be timed to maximize coverage on Chinese state television, which interrupted regular programing.

The landing craft carried a gold-hued unmanned exploration vehicle, named the Jade Rabbit after the story of a mythological Chinese moon goddess who kept a pet rabbit. The rover is expected to spend three months exploring the moon's “geological structure and surface substances and looking for natural resources,” the Xinhua news service said.

“This is a very significant step for their space program,” said Gregory Kulacki, who studies China's efforts in space for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It's a prospecting mission, their first real chance to test whether there are mineral resources on the moon.”

It marked the first time any country has accomplished a soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Union in 1976. After the space race between the United States and Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, lunar research has been largely eclipsed by exploration of more distant planets.

Chang'e-3 made its lunar landing on the 41st anniversary of the end of the manned missions to the moon. Apollo 17 lifted off the moon at 10:54:37 p.m. Dec. 14, 1972.

The Chinese government says its moon exploration is purely scientific, and it hopes eventually to land a man on the moon, perhaps in 10 or 15 years. Iran, which is interested in manned space flight, said it successfully sent a monkey into space for a second time, part of an ambitious program.

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