China's first lunar rover has successfully separated from the probe that carried it into space has and made its first track upon the surface of the moon, Chinese state media reported Sunday.
The so-called "Jade Rabbit" rover detached itself from the much larger landing vehicle early Sunday morning, approximately seven hours after the unmanned Chang'e 3 space probe touched down on a fairly flat, Earth-facing part of the moon. The soft landing -- the term for a landing in which neither the spacecraft nor its equipment is damaged -- was the first on the moon by any nation in 37 years.
State broadcaster China Central Television showed images taken from the lander's camera of the rover and its shadow moving down a sloping ladder and touching the surface, setting off applause in the Beijing control center. It said the lander and rover, both bearing Chinese flags, will take photos of each other Sunday evening.
Later, the six-wheeled rover will survey the moon's geological structure and surface and look for natural resources for three months, while the lander will carry out scientific explorations at the landing site for one year.
The mission marks the next stage in an ambitious space program that aims to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.
"It's still a significant technological challenge to land on another world," Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane's Space Systems and Industry, told the Associated Press. "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."
On Saturday evening, 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. As it was just hundreds of meters (yards) away, the lander's camera broadcast images of the moon's surface.
The Chang'e 3's solar panels, which are used to absorb sunlight to generate power, opened soon after the landing.
The Chang'e mission blasted off from southwest China on Dec. 2 on a Long March-3B carrier rocket.
The Chang'e 3 mission is named after a mythical Chinese goddess of the moon and the "Yutu" rover, or "Jade Rabbit" in English, is the goddess' pet.
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 2006, it sent its first probe to the moon. 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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.