China is sending a gold-colored buggy named the “Jade Rabbit” to the moon next month. If successful, it will be the country’s first real lunar landing, and the unmanned probe’s mission includes taking soil samples and readings of distant stars. More importantly, though, the vehicle is meant as a sign of the scale and nature of China’s space ambitions.
Security experts say the country’s lunar exploration program could mean a future of Chinese dominance over the moon’s resources, which include water and helium-3, potentially a source of fuel for fusion energy. China is going after deep space exploration at a time when other world powers have abandoned the space race because of budget restraints or shifting priorities. Only a decade ago, China sent its first astronaut into space and since then has launched four more manned missions. The lunar probe is the first step in eventually sending a manned mission to the moon. By 2020, China plans to build a permanently staffed space station of its own.
When officials chose the name of the new moon rover from votes in an online poll, they must have been aware of these international concerns. Jade Rabbit, or Yutu in Chinese, takes its name from Chinese folklore, and evokes a sense of playfulness or innocence. It’s a name that officials likely hope will re-emphasize Chinese claims that there are no military or other motives behind the country’s space program. Deputy commander-in-chief of the country’s lunar program, Li Benzheng said, “Yutu is a symbol of kindness, purity and agility, and is identical to the moon rover in both outlook and connotation. Yutu also reflects China’s peaceful use of space.”
A rocket will carry the 300 lb. Jade Rabbit into space in early December, China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense said.