China to make its first ever moon landing in 2013

China may have gotten off to a slow start in its efforts to explore space, but they are quickly catching up. The state Xinhua news agency has announced that China will be sending an exploratory lunar probe to the surface of the moon next year, marking an historic step forward in their space program — and one that could set the stage for a future mission involving humans.

Called Chang'e-3 (named after the Chinese goddess of the moon), the probe will be their third sent to the moon, but the first to actually reach the surface. The probe, which includes a lander and a rover, is expected to launch from the Xichang Satellite Center in southwest China's Sichuan province in the second half of 2013.

Writing in Gizmag, David Szondy describes the probe:

The 2013 mission...is scheduled to land on the Moon at the Sinus Iridum ("Bay of Rainbows"), a plain of basaltic lava situated at latitude 44 degrees north that forms a northwestern extension to the Mare Imbrium. The mission duration is expected to be three months.

The rover component of the mission is a six-wheeled machine weighing 120 kg (260 lb) and carries a payload of 20 kg (44 lb). It's powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which the CNSA says will allow the rover to operate during the lunar night. More importantly, it keeps the electronics from freezing and destroying the batteries, leaving a dead rover at sun up, which is what killed at least one Soviet rover. The rover can transmit real-time video, has a surface-analyzing radar and can collect and analyze soil samples.

The 100 kg (200 lb) lander is more than just a means of setting down the rover safely. It carries a suite of instruments of its own, including an astronomical telescope with extreme ultraviolet camera. China claims this will be the first lunar observatory in history.

China has made it clear that they have every intention of sending humans to the Moon at some future point, though no timeline has been provided. They're also developing a space station with an anticipated roll-out date of 2020.

Sources: Xinhua, Telegraph, Gizmag. Image via AP.