China Lands A Rover On The Moon

China became only the third country to land a lunar spacecraft, along with the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. NPR's Anthony Khun talks with Rachel Martin about the Jade Rabbit rover and China's space ambitions.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

China landed an unmanned rover on the moon yesterday. That makes China only the third country to achieve that feat, along with the United States and the former Soviet Union. China has an ambitious space program. They plan to put a space station in orbit and send a mission to Mars.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins me now to talk more about China's space ambitions. Anthony, thanks for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hello, Rachel.

MARTIN: So tell us about this particular mission. They have landed a rover on the Moon's surface. What is this rover - what is this vehicle supposed to do?

KUHN: All right, well, let's just remember, first of all, that they sort of cased out the joint. They sent two orbiters to orbit the Moon, check out the areas. Now, this particular rover, called the Jade Rabbit or Yutu in Chinese...

MARTIN: Ooh.

KUHN: ...landed in a huge crater called the Bay of Rainbows. And it's actually not Jade colored, it's golden. But it's going to use solar power to travel a few kilometers from its landing site. It's got ground-penetrating radar, which will use to probe and check out the surface of the Moon.

It's going to collect soil samples, possibly to see what resources might be available there - natural resources. And it also has an optical telescope, which it will use to study how solar activity affects the various levels of our atmosphere here on Earth. So it's quite a menu of experiments to do.

MARTIN: I have to ask you about this name, the Jade Rabbit? Where does that come from?

KUHN: OK. That's from Chinese mythology. And it's a story about the goddess of the Moon named Chang'e. And she, in this myth, stole an elixir of immortality, took it and ascended to the moon with her pet, who is the Jade Rabbit.

(LAUGHTER)

KUHN: It's a story that everybody knows in China. And it said if you look at the moon and you see the shadows, it looks like that rabbit.

MARTIN: So we said China is now in the same club as the U.S. and Russia. I wonder, is this something that's important to China - catching up with those major powers in this kind of space race?

KUHN: Well, you know, I think governments don't like to say they're engaged in a space race. It's just that they want to be there before anybody else.

(LAUGHTER)

KUHN: But actually there are a lot of things they can do that others don't. And they don't want to repeat what others have done. As a Chinese space scientist said to me, you know, we're not going to do what everyone else has already done. They're interested in big questions, such as, for example, what happened to the atmosphere on Mars? They want to get to these things first. And if they don't, they will take it where others left off. So I think they are trying to be original.

MARTIN: How much money does this endeavor have? I mean is this something that the Chinese are investing heavily in? What's the size and scope of the overall space program in China?

KUHN: It is well-funded. There's no figure I've seen for a total investment in it. But I think what's really interesting is the direction of the funding. When they first started launching things - you know, they launched their first satellite in 1970, it was all about national prestige, to say that we can do it too. But now, they're into the pure science of it, really cutting edge sort of things, like quantum telecommunications, things like anti-matter, real pure space science. That's where they're headed.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn. He is NPR's correspondent in Beijing. He's now on a visit back to headquarters here in Washington. Anthony, thanks so much for stopping by.

KUHN: Thank you so much, Rachel.

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