China's Jade Rabbit rover rolls on to Moon's surface

Adopted from BBC News; By Paul Rincon, Science editor, BBC News website

The Jade Rabbit, seen in this artist's impression, is the first wheeled vehicle on the Moon since the 1970s

China's Jade Rabbitrobot rover has driven off its landing module and on to the Moon's surface.

The robotic vehicle rolled down a ramplowered by the lander and on to the volcanic plain known as Sinus Iridum.

Earlier on Saturday, the landing modulecontaining the rover fired its thrusters to perform the first soft landing onthe Moon since 1976.

The touchdown in the Moon's northernhemisphere marks the latest step in China'sambitious space programme.

The lander will operate there for a year,while the rover is expected to work for some three months.

The Chang'e-3 mission landed some 12 daysafter being launched atop a Chinese-developed Long March 3B rocket from Xichangin the country's south.

The Jade Rabbit rover rolls off the landerand onto the Moon's surface

The official Xinhuanews service reported that the craft began its descent justafter 1300 GMT (2100 Beijing time), touchingdown in Sinus Iridum (the Bay of Rainbows) 11 minuteslater.

"I was lucky enough to see aprototype rover in Shanghaia few years ago - it's a wonderful technological achievement to have landed,"Prof Andrew Coates, from UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, told BBC News.

Chang'e-3 is the third unmanned rovermission to touch down on the lunar surface, and the first to go there in morethan 40 years. The last was an 840kg (1,900lb) Soviet vehicle known asLunokhod-2, which was kept warm by polonium-210.

But the six-wheeled Chinese vehiclecarries a more sophisticated payload, including ground-penetrating radar whichwill gather measurements of the lunar soil and crust.

The 120kg (260lb) Jade Rabbit rover canreportedly climb slopes of up to 30 degrees and travel at 200m (660ft) perhour.

Its name - chosen in an online poll of 3.4million voters - derives from an ancient Chinese myth about a rabbit living onthe moon as the pet of the lunar goddess Chang'e.

The rover and lander are powered by solarpanels but some sources suggest they also carry radioisotope heating units(RHUs), containing plutonium-238 to keep them warm during the cold lunar night.

Reports suggest the lander and rover willphotograph each other at some point on Sunday.

According to Chinese space scientists, themission is designed to test new technologies, gather scientific data and buildintellectual expertise. It will also scout valuable mineral resources thatcould one day be mined.

"China'slunar programme is an important component of mankind's activities to explore[the] peaceful use of space," Sun Huixian, a space engineer with theChinese lunar programme, told Xinhua.

After this, a mission to bring samples oflunar soil back to Earth is planned for 2017. And this may set the stage forfurther robotic missions, and - perhaps - a crewed lunar mission in the 2020s.

Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the HeritageFoundation, a conservative think-tank in WashingtonDC, said China'sspace programme was a good fit with China'sconcept of "comprehensive national power". This might be described asa measure of a state's all-round capabilities.

But he said that China did not see itself as being in a"space race" with anyone else. "I'm comparing it specifically tohow the US and the Soviets were behaving in the late 1950s and 1960s when youhad space launches almost every month.

The rover will be exploring a flatvolcanic plain known as Sinus Iridum (the Bay of Rainbows)

"Look at how often the Chinese domanned missions - it's almost every other year."

Instead, the country is methodically andpatiently building up the key elements needed for an advanced space programme -from launchers to manned missions in Earth orbit to unmanned planetary craft -and it is investing heavily.

Mr Cheng added: "China is saying: 'We are doing something thatonly two other countries have done before - the USand the Soviet Union."

The landing site of Sinus Iridum (Latinfor Bay of Rainbows) is a flat volcanic plain, partof a larger feature known as Mare Imbrium that forms the right eye of the"Man in the Moon".