BEIJING (AFP) - A space module carrying China's first lunar rover landed on the moon on Saturday, state television showed, the first soft landing on the moon in nearly four decades and a major step for the emerging superpower's ambitious space programme.
Scientists burst into applause as a computer generated image representing the spacecraft was seen landing on the moon's surface via screens at a Beijing control centre, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) showed, 12 days after Chang'e-3 blasted off on a Long March-3B carrier rocket.
China is set to become just the third country to carry out a moon rover mission, following the United States and former Soviet Union, which also made the last soft landing on the moon 37 years ago.
The probe touched down on an ancient 400km wide plain known in Latin as Sinus Iridum, or The Bay of Rainbows.
The landing was previously described as the "most difficult" part of the mission by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in a post on Chang'e-3's microblogging page on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter equivalent.
The probe used sensors and 3D imaging to identify a flat surface. Thrusters were then deployed 100m from the lunar surface to gently guide the craft into position.
The landing marks the latest step in an ambitious space programme which is seen as a symbol of China's rising global stature and technological advancement, as well as the Communist Party's success in reversing the fortunes of the once impoverished nation.
It comes a decade after the country first sent an astronaut into space, and ahead of plans to establish a permanent space station by 2020 and eventually send a human to the moon.