Lunar satellite to be launched in 2007
The first lunar satellite of China will be launched during a fly-by mission in 2007, scientists and officials said Thursday in Beijing.
The move is seen as a key step for the country to start outer space exploration.
"As a spacefaring nation, it is time for China to initiate outer space probing centering on moon exploration now that we've launched manmade satellites and made breakthroughs in manned spaceflight," said Luan Enjie, director of China National Space Administration.
Luan, also chief commander of China's lunar orbiting programme, made the remark at a meeting to co-ordinate the work of the lunar orbiter launch and tracking systems, ground applications and carrier-rocket systems.
The programme is dubbed "Chang'e project," and the first lunar orbiter is named "Chang'e-I," referring to an ancient Chinese legend about the fairy Chang'e who flies to the moon.
With funding of 1.4 billion yuan (US$169 million), the orbiter, based on China's Dongfanghong III satellite platform and other mature satellite technology, will be launched atop a Long March 3-A rocket, according to Sun Laiyan, another leading space official.
Lunar probes are always a subject of great interest, given the Earth's nearest neighbour probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development, experts said.
The moon contains various special resources for humanity to develop and use, Luan said. The moon will provide a good platform from which to explore outward at longer distances.
He said China's unmanned fly-by mission will obtain three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and analyze the content and distribution of useful elements on the moon's surface, measure the density of lunar soil and explore the environment between the moon and Earth.
"The achievements of China's first lunar exploration will surely provide useful new information for humanity's moon research and resources investigation," Luan said.
Although China has accumulated some expertise and experience in space activities, lunar exploration is a challenging and arduous task, said Sun Jiadong, chief architect of the lunar probe project.
"It is not just that we are sending a satellite farther away than we did in the past," Sun said. "We've got to work out every single problem regarding satellite, rocket and tracking systems."
To send the orbiter to circle the moon, which is on average more than 384,000 kilometres away from the Earth, Chinese scientists will have to readjust the speed of the orbiter many times after it blasts off, said Ye Peijian, chief designer of the project's satellite system.
Following the fly-by project, China will proceed to soft-land an unmanned vehicle on the moon and then to scoop up lunar samples for return to Earth, according to Luan.
The fly-by, landing and returning phases are expected to be completed in 20 years, Luan said.
The world has seen the second upsurge of lunar exploration since late 1990s, following the first round in 1950s, according to Luan.
United States astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Earlier this year, the US announced that it planed to "return to the moon."