Aiming to join the lunar exploration club, China today successfully launched a probe to conduct research from an orbit around the moon. If all goes as planned, the satellite, named Chang'e 1, will reach our nearest celestial neighbor in 13 days for a yearlong mission mapping the lunar surface and spectroscoping its composition.
The Chinese project comes on the heels of a similar lunar mission last month by the Japanese space agency. It also precedes another lunar attempt by the Indian government scheduled for lift-off in the spring of next year. Analysts believe the trio of projects signals a round of scientific muscle flexing among the Asian giants aimed at winning prestige among their neighbors as technological heavyweights.
"The launch of China's first moon probe is successful," said Xu Fuxiang, a professor at the China Institute of Space Technology. "We have passed through the most difficult time. It should be heading smoothly toward the moon."
After entering lunar orbit the 5070-pound Chang'e 1 will use its stereo cameras to begin transmitting images back to earth in a few week's time.
China has long been a participant in space exploration, launching its first satellite into orbit over thirty years ago. Recently, its space program has grown in scale as its economy has flourished. In 2003, China became only the world's third country, after the United States and Russia, to put its own people into space. The Chang'e 1 is just the first effort in a planned 10-year agenda to explore the moon, culminating in attempts to land robotic rovers on its surface and return them home.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said recently that he thought the Chinese will get to the moon and back before the U.S. can meet its own 2020 deadline for a return visit by its own astronauts.
For more on today's launch and the impact of the Chinese lunar program, please see these excellent analyses:
- "Beijing's Rocketing Ambition" from the BBC Online and
- "What's Behind Asia's Moon Race?" from the Christian Science Monitor.
Also see our Tech Talk posting from last week "Should China Become a Space Station Participant?".