While the US is already thinking ahead to manned missions on Mars, China's space program is still in its infancy, with the country taking the very first steps to sending vehicles and eventually people to the Moon. After launching a lunar orbiter later this year, scientists will begin the process of choosing among several competing rover designs for exploring the Moon's geology and terrain, and now the first of these candidates has been unveiled for public consumption. Very similar to the famous Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, the six-wheeled bot created by a team at Shanghai Aerospace System Engineering Institute is capable of cruising around the Moon at a reported 100 meters per hour, all the while snapping photos and collecting bits of moon rock for analysis and possible sale on eBay. Perhaps the most interesting part of this design is its dual-mode power system, which consists of the standard solar cell array as well as a nuclear power source, allowing the rover to operate continuously and in areas that go long periods without sunlight. No word yet on when exactly the Chinese will pick the winning rover, but expect whichever model emerges victorious to head skyward sometime in 2012.

[Via BBC, photo courtesy of Shanghai Daily]

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Chinese engineers reveal nuclear-powered lunar rover