PARIS — China’s first mission to land a rover on the Moon was successfully launched Dec. 2 and the spacecraft’s signals were received, as scheduled, at a European Space Agency (ESA) antenna in South America, ESA and China’s launch service provider, China Great Wall Industry Corp., announced Dec. 2.
The two missions are showcase examples of the diversification of space capability in recent years, as many nations seek their own satellite-building capability or at least their own satellites for Earth observation and telecommunications. A smaller group of nations is pursuing domestic rocket development.
China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft was placed into a 200-by-380,000-kilometer transfer orbit by a Chinese Long March 3B rocket operated from China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. It was the 186th launch of the Chinese vehicle, which comes in several configurations.
The 20-nation ESA is partnering with the mission’s manager, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., by providing ground tracking assistance. ESA’s tracking role will continue as Chang’e-3 and its Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, rover enter lunar orbit, scheduled to occur Dec. 6, through to the planned Dec. 14 landing on the lunar surface.
ESA said Chinese engineers have been deployed to the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, to smooth communications between Chang’e-3 mission controllers and the European tracking managers.
After landing on the surface of the Moon, the probe will send signals both to Chinese ground stations and to ESA’s 35-meter-diameter antennas in Spain and Australia.
ESA officials say they will use the data from their two antennas to help Chinese mission managers pinpoint the exact landing point.
ESA and its member states have never demonstrated the antagonism toward China’s dynamic space program that has been on view in the U.S. government for more than a decade.
European governments have permitted European companies to sell telecommunications satellites and payloads to China. These governments say they are more than willing to pursue joint science, technology and environment-monitoring space projects with China, all the while setting fences around certain types of efforts.
For example, European governments, after initially welcoming China, and Chinese funding, into Europe’s Galileo satellite positioning, navigation and timing program, subsequently rejected the Chinese and refused the inclusion of a Chinese-built payload on the Galileo satellites.