Chinese Orbiter Becomes First Probe In Nearly 40 Years To Make It To The Moon And Back

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
An unmanned Chinese orbiter known as the “Little Flyer” returned to Earth this past weekend after successfully circumnavigating the Moon, becoming the first spacecraft in nearly four decades to make the journey to the planet’s natural satellite and back, various media outlets reported on Sunday.
According to Tom Phillips of The Telegraph, the “Xiaofei” lunar orbiter began its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere around 6:13am local time on Saturday, subsequently landing in Inner Mongolia. It launched on October 23 and traveled more than 520,000 miles during its journey, traveling at speeds of 25,000 miles per hour during its journey.
The probe was more than 250,000 miles from the Earth at its furthest point, said Ben Tufft of The Independent, and used a Soviet-era method in which the craft essentially bounces off the planet’s atmosphere in order to slow down and avoid burning up on its descent back to the Earth’s surface.
The China National Space Administration launched the orbiter in late October, and in addition to serving as a test run for a potential manned expedition to the Moon, the mission was designed to test equipment to be used in the country’s fourth lunar probe, the Chang’e-5, which is currently scheduled to launch sometime in 2017.
“China is currently embarked on an ambitious moon-exploration program that started in 2007 with the launch of the Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter. Chang’e 2, another orbiter, followed in 2010, and in December 2013 the Chang’e 3 mission put China’s first lunar rover down on the moon,” Space.com’s Mike Wall wrote in an article published Saturday.
“Chang’e 5 T1 also carried the first private mission to the moon as a piggyback payload. Luxembourg-based LuxSpace’s 4M mission hitched a ride on the Long March 3C, then stayed attached to the rocket’s upper stage for a lunar flyby and return to Earth,” he added. “The 31-pound (14 kilograms) 4M payload and the rocket stage were expected to end up circling Earth rather than re-enter the planet’s atmosphere.”
Phillips called the landing the latest advance for a space program that the country’s leaders view as an important way of bolstering their international reputation. He added that some Chinese scientists have said they hope that space exploration could help them discover usable high-demand natural resources and raw materials.
“China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation after Russia and the U.S. to achieve manned space travel independently. It has since launched a temporarily crewed space station and conducted a spacewalk,” the Associated Press (AP) reported.
“China’s program has received Russian assistance but has developed independently of America’s, which is now in its sixth decade of putting people into space and has long-term plans to go to an asteroid and Mars,” the wire service added. “Alongside the manned and lunar programs, China is developing the Long March 5 heavier-lift rocket needed to launch a more permanent space station to be called Tiangong 2.”
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