Asia space race heats up as China heads for moon

Asia’s space race heated up on Wednesday as China launched its first lunar orbiter, an event hailed in the world’s most populous nation as a milestone event in its global rise.

China’s year-long expedition, costing 1,4-billion yuan ($184-million), kicks off a programme that aims to land an unmanned rover on the moon’s surface by 2012 and put a man on the moon by about 2020.

The launch of Chang’e I, which will explore and map the moon’s surface, came after Japan last month launched its first lunar probe and ahead of a similar mission planned by India for next year.

Chang’e I took off at 6.05pm local time, perfect timing for a national television audience that watched it live after repeatedly being told by the government-controlled press about the significance of the event.

China has hailed the lunar orbiter as the third major milestone event for the nation’s space programme, after developing rockets and satellites since the 1970s and sending men into orbit in 2003 and 2005.

“Flying to the moon is the nation’s long-cherished dream,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a report immediately after the launch.

More than 1 000 Chinese journalists had reportedly converged on Xichang Satellite Launching Centre in south-western China’s Sichuan province to cover the event.

In the months leading up to the launch, one of the chief scientists in China’s moon programme, Ouyang Ziyuan, also pointed to the broader message a successful mission would send to the Chinese people and the world.

“As lunar exploration embodies our overall national strength, it is very significant for raising our international prestige and our national unity,” Ouyang told the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.

To further drum up Chinese pride, the national anthem and 31 other patriotic songs were uploaded on to the satellite so it could broadcast the music back to China.

On September 14, Japan stole a march on China by launching its first lunar orbiter as a key step in putting a man on the moon by 2020.

Although the timeframes for China and Japan to eventually put someone on the moon are roughly similar, some Chinese officials tried to play down the rivalry.

“Japan began its lunar exploration research much earlier than we did, so we have always stressed that with the launch of Chang’e, we don’t want to be talking about who is first,” top mission official Zhang Jianqi said.

Zhang said China’s project engineers were more concerned over whether new technology would perform correctly during the flight of the Chang’e, which is named after a Chinese fairy who flew to the moon.

“We are all preparing for possible failure because if one little thing goes wrong, the whole mission could fail,” Zhang told the Beijing Times in an interview.

The orbiter is expected to transmit its first pictures of the moon back to earth by the end of November.

According to Rene Oosterlinck, a European Space Agency spokesperson, the race to the moon, which also includes a renewed United States effort, is aimed at setting up permanent lunar bases as a first step to eventual exploration of Mars.

“The Chinese satellite will mainly be taking three dimensional pictures of the moon surface to see where it will be possible to land in the future to set up a lunar base,” Oosterlinck said.

China’s space programme can be traced back to the mid-1950s, when it began with Soviet help during a period of warm ties between the two giants of the Communist bloc.

However, it has only been in more recent times that China’s space programme has taken huge strides, in parallel with the country’s spectacular economic rise.

China successfully launched astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit in 2003, making it the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a man in space.

Its third manned space flight is scheduled for late 2008 on a mission that will include three astronauts and China’s first-ever space walk.—AFP

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