China Unveils First Moon Photos From New Lunar Orbiter
This photo, taken by China's Chang'e 2 lunar probe in October 2010, shows a crater in the moon's Bay of Rainbows. The image is one of the first released to the public by China's space agency.
Credit: China Lunar Exploration Program [Full Story]

China's space program has released the first moon photos taken by the country's second lunar probe Chang'e 2, an unmanned spacecraft scouting out potential sites for a planned robotic lunar landing mission in 2013.

The pictures were taken by Chang'e 2 at the end of October, according to the AFP news agency. They show an area in the moon's northern hemisphere known as Sinus Iridium (Bay of Rainbows), revealing it to be relatively flat area with craters and rocks of various sizes, according to media reports. [New moon photo from Chang'e 2]

China released the pictures with much fanfare today (Nov. 8) and posted five of new Chang'e 2 moon photos on the China Lunar Exploration Program website. Premier Wen Jiabao officially unveiled them at a ceremony in Beijiing, and Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang read out a statement, according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

"The success of Chang'e 2 in accomplishing its mission marks another great achievement after the country successfully launched its first lunar probe," China's state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted Zhang as saying. "The Chinese people will unswervingly develop technologies for the exploration of deep space and the peaceful use of outer space."

Chang'e 2 launched Oct. 1 and arrived in lunar orbit five days later. The probe is the second step in China's three-phase moon exploration program, which includes a series of unmanned missions to explore the lunar surface.

The Chang'e 2 orbiter is scouting for possible landing sites for the Chang'e 3 spacecraft, which is scheduled to land on the moon in 2013, Xinhua reported. The Chang'e spacecraft are named after the nation's mythical moon goddess.

According to media reports, the Chang'e 2 mission costs an estimated $134 million.

Chang'e 2 will eventually swoop down to an orbit just 9 miles (15 km) above the lunar surface to take high-resolution pictures of landing areas for Chang'e 3, Xinhua has reported.

The Chang'e 1 probe launched in October 2007 and conducted a 16-month moon observation mission, after which it crash-landed on the lunar surface by design, in March 2009.

The Chang'e missions are just one prong of China's burgeoning space program, which has seen three successful manned spaceflights, including the nation's first spacewalk on the most recent mission, the Shenzhou 7 flight of 2008.

China hopes to return a moon rock to Earth by 2017 and launch a manned lunar mission by 2020, the AFP reported.