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China poised for unmanned Moon landing

China is to attempt an unmanned Moon landing in the next few hours. If successful, the probe will deploy a rover vehicle to inspect the lunar landscape and make China only the third nation to make a soft landing.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences said Saturday's intended touchdown was due at 1300 UTC on the Moon's plain known in Latin as Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows. It would be the world's first soft lunar landing in nearly four decades.

Statements from the Chinese mission on Sina Weibo – China's short-messaging system - said the landing craft known as Chang'e-3 would make a "free fall" landing using an automatic system for the final few meters of descent.

Thruster jets would first be deployed 100 meters (330 feet) above the lunar surface.

"At this stage, the Earth base is effectively powerless, and there is only about 10 minutes to finish the process," said Chang'e-3's Weibo page.

Hands off landing

The chance of manual intervention would be "practically zero," according to sources quoted by China's state news agency Xinhua.

European Space Agency (ESA) official Karl Bergquist, who has liaised with the Chinese mission, said the key challenge would be to identify a flat location for the landing.

The intended Sinus Irium site is an 400-kilometer (250 mile) wide plain.

The rover carried by the landing craft is called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit.

It is designed to climb slopes of up to 30 degrees in inclination and travel at 200 meters per hour, according to the Shanghai Aerospace Systems Engineering Research Institute.

Four decades later

The last lunar soft landing was made by the former Soviet Union in 1976 in the wake of the United State's first manned Apollo mission in 1969. The last US Apollo explorers visited the Moon's surface in 1972.

In September the US space agency NASA launched the unmanned spacecraft LADEE to orbit the Moon - 250 kilometers above its surface - and sample its extremely thin atmosphere of gases and electrically-charged dust.

It was NASA's third lunar-bound probe in five years.

NASA's next big human exploration project plans to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

Monkey flight

Almost simultaneously on Saturday, Iran said it had sent a monkey into space using a ballistic missile and returned it safely to Earth.

Tehran has rejected western charges that its space bids have military aims.

ipj/ccp (AFP, AP)