China prepares for first lunar rover landing on the moon

China prepares for first lunar rover landing on the moon
The Long March-3B rocket carrying the Chang'e-3 lunar probe blasts off from the launch pad at Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

BEIJING - China will attempt to land a probe carrying the country's first lunar rover on the moon Saturday in a major breakthrough for its ambitious space programme.

The spacecraft is expected to make touchdown at 9:40 pm (1340 GMT), state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) said, 12 days after the Chang'e-3 mission blasted off on a Long March-3B carrier rocket.

China is aiming to become the third country to carry out a rover mission, following the United States and former Soviet Union, which also made the last soft landing on the moon 37 years ago.

"China's lunar probe Chang'e-3 is expected to land on the moon at 21:40 BJT (Beijing Time) on Saturday," CCTV posted on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.

"The 12-minute autonomous landing will be the key to the success of the task," it said.

The probe is expected to touch down on an ancient 400-kilometre (250-mile) wide plain known in Latin as Sinus Iridum, or The Bay of Rainbows.

Landing is the "most difficult" part of the mission, the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in an online post written on the official Chang'e-3 Weibo page.

The landing craft uses sensors and 3D imaging to identify a flat surface. Thrusters are deployed 100 metres (330 feet) from the lunar surface to gently guide the craft into position.

The probe, which is also fitted with shock absorbers in the legs to cushion the impact of the landing, will "free-fall" for the crucial final few metres of descent. "Chang'e-3 is completely relying on auto-control for descent, range and velocity measurements, finding the proper landing point, and free-falling," Chang'e-3's microblog said.

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