China Set to Launch First Lunar Rover Mission in Four Decades

China will be the first nation to send a rover to the lunar surface in nearly four decades if the December launch of the Chang’e-3 mission proves successful.

In early December the Chang’e-3 probe —dubbed Jade Rabbit through a public naming contest — will blast off atop a Long March 3B rocket from the Xichang launch center in Sichuan province. About two weeks later it will descend to the lunar surface. If successful, it will be the first soft-landing since the Soviet Luna 24 probe in 1976.

Jade Rabbit (Yutu — the pet rabbit of the goddess Chang’e) is a six-wheeled rover with two mechanical legs that can dig up soil samples. It is also equipped with four cameras that will beam back images during the rover’s planned three months of leisurely exploration.

Unlike the Luna 24, the third and final Soviet mission to return soil samples from the moon, Jade Rabbit won’t be returning to earth. That achievement won’t come until 2017 when Chang’e-5 will undertake to return a lunar soil sample. The successful completion of this phase will lay the groundwork for China’s manned lunar mission planned for 2025.

Jade Rabbit’s lunar stomping ground hasn’t yet been unveiled but most scientists believe it will be inside a crater named Sinus Iridum, or Bay of Rainbows, which had been the focus of China’s 2010 orbiter mission.

NASA is concerned that Chang’e-3’s descent will stir up a dust plume and interfere with its study of the tiny amounts of dust in the moon’s ultra-thin atmosphere.