The Chang'e 4 spacecraft, which lifted off on Friday (Dec. 7), is expected to set down in early January on the side of the moon that faces away from Earth. If successful, the four-legged lander and six-wheeled rover will be China's second pair of vehicles to land on the lunar surface and the country's first to officially become toys for sale to the public.
The Maisto Tech toy company, which the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) selected in 2013 to produce full-size and scale models of the previous Yutu ("Jade Rabbit") moon rover, has again earned the exclusive rights to make miniature versions of Chinese spacecraft, in this case, the similarly configured Chang'e 4 lunar vehicles. This time, though, the replicas will not be limited to high-end models made for museums and government exhibitions, but will also include interactive toys that can move and light up. [Chang'e 4 in Pictures: China's Mission to the Moon's Far Side]
Recently released photos taken in mid-November show factory workers at the Maisto Tech plant in Dongguan, China, assembling, testing and packaging the Chang'e 4 toys, including a 1:8-scale motorized lunar rover and 1:16-scale version of the rover with sounds and lights. The larger of the two models includes an infrared sensor and a switch that prevents the toy from colliding with walls or other obstacles.
The Maisto rover reproduces details from the real vehicle, including its camera mast, deployable solar arrays and communications antenna. Like the rover now on its way to a landing on the moon, the rover models have the flag of China emblazoned on their front. The toys also include the Maisto Tech and CLEP logos.
A 1:20-scale Chang'e 4 lander is also planned. Pricing and availability of the toys were not specified.
The Chang'e 4 lander and rover were originally built as backup units to the earlier Chang'e 3 mission, which landed a probe and rover on the moon's Sea of Rains (Mare Imbrium) on Dec. 14, 2013. China modified the Chang'e 4 rover to meet the demands of the far-side terrain, but also to avoid the fate of the robot's predecessor, which became immobilized after driving only 360 feet (110 meters).
The Chang'e 4 spacecraft are equipped with eight instruments to support studies in low-frequency radio astronomy and the composition of the moon's far side. The mission will also deliver to the surface potato and plant seeds, as well as silkworm eggs, packed into a tin as a first-of-its-kind "mini biosphere."
Once down on the moon's surface, the Chang'e 4 lander and rover will relay data through the Queqiao ("magpie bridge") communications satellite. China earlier launched that satellite into a halo orbit around the second Lagrangian point (L2) of the Earth-moon system.
The Maisto Tech Chang'e 4 toys are the latest way that China has shared its lunar missions with the public. The country celebrated its previous moon-bound craft with coins, stamps and commemorative bank notes.
Robert Pearlman is a Space.com contributing writer and the editor of collectSPACE.com, a Space.com partner site and the leading space-history news publication. Follow collectSPACE on Facebook and on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.