China took a step toward its plans to send an unmanned probe to the moon that will return to Earth by launching a spacecraft on Friday to test flight paths and equipment.
The launch was carried out from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan, with a Long March 3C rocket successfully placing the craft into earth orbit, the China National Space Administration announced. The eight-day mission calls for the craft to enter lunar orbit, then return to Earth, bouncing off the atmosphere to slow its rate of descent before re-entry.
The mission should help prepare remote guidance systems and test the ability of the craft to withstand the extreme heat of re-entry, the state-run news agency Xinhua said. Such technologies will be used in a Chang’e-5 mission, planned for 2017, that would see an unmanned Chinese probe land on the moon and then return to Earth with samples, it added.
China conducted its first successful lunar soft landing last December, becoming only the third country to place a functioning probe on the moon after the Soviet Union and the United States. China’s lunar buggy, known as Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, sent data and images back to earth until at least July, beyond its planned three-month mission, although it suffered malfunctions linked to a problem with closing its outer doors, which left sensitive equipment exposed to the extreme cold of the lunar night.