China has unveiled a new lunar rover as it prepares to become the first nation in the world to explore the far side of the moon later this year.
Revealed at a press conference Wednesday, the unmanned vehicle is 1.5 meters (5 feet) long and about one meter (3.3 feet) wide and tall, with two foldable solar panels and six wheels.
China announced its intentions in 2015 to send a rover to the far side of the moon. In May this year, it launched a relay satellite to establish a communication link between Earth and the planned lunar probe.
The country’s last lunar rover – named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit – ceased operation in August 2016 after 972 days of service on the surface of the moon as part of the Chang’e 3 mission. China was only the third nation to successfully carry out a lunar landing, after the United States and Russia.
Yutu’s successor is currently nameless, with a global competition underway to choose a moniker. The winner will receive $435 and tickets to watch the launch live.
“Its overall design is inherited from our last lunar rover,” Wu Weiren, the chief designer of China’s lunar probe program, told state broadcaster CCTV. “But we worked hard to improve its reliability, conducting thousands of experiments to ensure its long-term operation, especially taking into consideration rocks, ravines and frictions on the moon.”
The next lunar mission – Chang’e-4 – will take off at the end of this year, officials said, though a final launch date has yet to be announced.
Wu said the new rover will carry equipment jointly developed by China and Sweden, as well as a domestically-made radar, cameras and scientific gear.
On Chinese social media, suggestions for a name for the rover abounded, with some commenters advising against another name associated with rabbits – linking operational difficulties “Jade Rabbit” encountered during its mission to the “feeble” animal.
Many users suggested the name “Monk Pig,” after Zhu Bajie, a fictional character from the famous classical Chinese novel “Journey to the West.”
Once an immortal in heaven, Zhu was turned into a half-man, half-pig monster as punishment for his drunken flirtation with Chang’e – the moon goddess whose name is now synonymous with China’s lunar program.
China’s space ambitions
China was late to the space race – it didn’t send its first satellite into space until 1970, after the US put the first man on the moon. But in the decades since, Beijing has pumped billions of dollars and other resources into research and training.
While NASA – barred by the US Congress from working with China due to national security concerns – has faced years of budgetary constraints, China is increasingly aiming to own the space race in the coming decade.
Beijing plans to launch its first Mars probe around 2020 to carry out orbital and rover exploration, followed by a second mission that would include collection of surface samples from the red planet.
According to Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of China’s national space agency, the country is also studying the possibility of sending a man to the moon, and also has plans to send probes to Jupiter and its moons.
“Our overall goal is that, by around 2030, China will be among the major space powers of the world,” Wu told reporters in 2016.
China is also planning to have a fully operational permanent space station by 2022 – around the same time funding for the International Space Station is expected to end.
While Beijing is careful to stress its “peaceful motives” in exploring space, the US views China – along with Russia – as a potential threat, prompting US President Donald Trump to call for the establishment of a “space force” by 2020.
In a speech to the Pentagon last week, Vice President Mike Pence accused China and Russia of developing technologies and weapons to target US satellites and “working to bring new weapons of war into space itself.”