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China Lands On The Moon: Historic Robotic Lunar Landing Includes 1st Chinese Rover

China has landed its first robotic lander on the moon, a historic lunar arrival that makes the country only the third nation to make a soft-landing on Earth's celestial neighbor.

China's Chang'e 3 moon lander and its Yutu rover touched down on the moon Saturday (Dec. 14) at about 8:11 a.m. EST (1311 GMT), though it was late Saturday night local time at the mission's control center in Beijing during the landing. It is the first soft-landing on the moon by any spacecraft in 37 years. 

Chang'e 3 launched toward the moon on Dec. 2 Beijing time to begin its two-week trek to the lunar surface. The spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit about five days after launch, and then began preparing for landing. A camera on the spacecraft snapped 59 photos of the moon during the descent, including a view straight from the lunar surface just after touchdown. [See photos from China's Chang'e 3 moon rover mission]

Following a lengthy engine burn Saturday, the mooncraft lowered itself to the lunar surface on autopilot, making what appeared to be a smooth touchdown on the Bay of Rainbows in the moon's northern hemisphere. The descent from lunar orbit to the moon's surface took about 12 minutes.

Shortly after landing, Chang'e 3 deployed its vital solar arrays, which were folded for the landing, to begin generating power for its lunar surface mission. The lander is now expected to unleash the instrument-laden Yutu rover, built to trundle across the dusty, time-weathered terrain for months.

China's Chang'e 3 lunar arrival is the first soft-landing on the moon since 1976. Not since the former Soviet Union's Luna 24 sample-return mission has a spacecraft made a controlled, soft touchdown on the lunar surface. The last soft-landing on the moon by NASA was in 1972 during the Apollo 17 manned lunar landing mission.

The Yutu rover (its name means "Jade Rabbit") is named after the pet rabbit that travels with the goddess Chang'e to the moon in Chinese legends. Chang'e 3 is China's third lunar mission to carry the name, but the first to soft-land on the moon. The first two Chinese lunar missions were built to orbit the moon.  

The six-wheeled Yutu rover is a solar-powered vehicle equipped with cameras, a robotic arm tipped with science gear and a radar system attached to its underbelly.

The stationary lander itself also is geared to observe Earth, astronomically eye other celestial objects from the moon, as well as watch the Yutu rover wheel across the lunar terrain.

Visit SPACE.com for the latest news on China's space missions and the Chang'e 3 moon landing.

Editor's Note:This story will be updated today to include news on the rover deployment and comments from Chinese space agency officials.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin's new book "Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration" published by National Geographic. Follow us @SPACEdotcomFacebook or Google+. Originally published on SPACE.com.

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