November 27, 2009

China Set To Launch Second Lunar Probe

China is planning to launch its second lunar probe next October to get ready for an unmanned moon landing by the end of 2012, state-run media reported on Friday.

The Chang'e 2 probe is a more advanced version of the Chang'e 1 that had a controlled collision with the moon in March, ending a 16-month mission.

According to the official China Daily newspaper, designer Ye Peijian said that Chang'e 2 will orbit 60 miles closer to the moon than the first probe, which was launched in 2007, and will carry a higher resolution camera.

The scheduled launch emphasizes how China's desire to take part in space endeavors is growing since joining Russia and the United States as the only countries to launch men into orbit six years ago.

Since then, China has launched two more manned missions, including the country's first space walk last year.

The lunar exploration program is also working on a mission to return samples of the moon's surface in 2015. Ye told the paper that engineers are working on prototypes of the moon lander and rover, dubbed Chang'e 3. It will be landing on piece of the moon known as Sinus Iridium.

They may even be three years ahead of NASA's target date for returning to the moon. A manned lunar mission is now possible by 2017.

China's space plans include building an orbiting station and sending a mission to Mars, plans so aggressive that they will likely put China in the lead of a tightening Asian space race between India, Japan and South Korea.

The program started working on its fourth space center in September that will enable it to launch massive new rockets carrying larger satellites and components for a space station and deep space exploration.

It may have gotten much help from Russia in the beginning, but China has gone on to largely developed its space program on its own. It got a substantial boost from the booming economy and enthusiastic support from government for scientific research and development.

China claims that the program is only driven by a peaceful agenda, but its strong connection to the armed forces and Beijing's development of anti-satellite weapons have raised doubts to that claim. The program's involvement with the military and the furtive, authoritarian nature of China's communist one-party state have hindered cooperation in space with other nations.

However, the program is currently receiving immense support from the Chinese public, which creates a buffer for the type of criticism and budgetary pressures that typically hold back such programs.