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China's first moon rover lands — and starts rolling over the lunar surface

2:11

BEIJING — China on Saturday successfully carried out the world's first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades, state media said. Hours later, video footage showed the probe's rover rolling onto the lunar surface.

The achievement marked the next stage in an ambitious space program that aims to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.

The unmanned Chang'e 3 lander, named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon, touched down on Earth's nearest neighbor following a 12-minute landing process.

The probe carried a six-wheeled moon rover called Yutu, or "Jade Rabbit," the goddess' pet in the myth. Within hours of its landing on a fairly flat, Earth-facing part of the moon, the rover separated from the Chang'e lander to embark on a three-month scientific exploration.

Image: Yutu rover
An image captured by a camera on China's Chang'e 3 lander shows the Yutu lunar rover rolling down a track toward the moon's surface.

Source of pride
China's space program is an enormous source of pride for the country, the third to carry out a lunar soft landing — which does not damage the craft and the equipment it carries — after the United States and the former Soviet Union. The last one was by the Soviet Union in 1976.

"It's still a significant technological challenge to land on another world," said Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane's Space Systems and Industry. "Especially somewhere like the moon, which doesn't have an atmosphere so you can't use parachutes or anything like that. You have to use rocket motors for the descent, and you have to make sure you go down at the right angle and the right rate of descent and you don't end up in a crater on top of a large rock."

State-run China Central Television showed a computer-generated image of the Chang'e 3 lander's path as it approached the surface of the moon, saying that during the 12-minute landing period it needed to have no contact with Earth. When it was just hundreds of meters (yards) away, the lander's camera broadcast images of the moon's surface.

Chang'e 3's solar panels, which are used to absorb sunlight to generate power, opened soon after the landing. Chang'e 3 will set up antennas that will transmit pictures back to Earth.

The Chang'e mission blasted off from southwest China on Dec. 2 on a Long March-3B carrier rocket.

Image: Chang'e 3 descent
China's Chang'e 3 probe transmitted this low-resolution view of the lunar surface during Saturday's descent.

Methodical progress
China's military-backed space program has made methodical progress in a relatively short time, although it lags far behind the United States and Russia in technology and experience.

China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation after Russia and the United States to achieve manned space travel independently. In 2007, it sent its first probe to the moon, named Chang'e 1. A follow-up mission, called Chang'e 2, was launched to study the moon in 2010, and then left lunar orbit to make a close flyby of the asteroid Toutatis in 2012.

China plans to open a space station around 2020 and send an astronaut to the moon after that.

"They are taking their time with getting to know about how to fly humans into space, how to build space stations ... how to explore the solar system, especially the moon and Mars," Bond said. "They are making good strides, and I think over the next 10, 20 years they'll certainly be rivaling Russia and America in this area and maybe overtaking them in some areas."

This report was supplemented and updated by NBC News.