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First launch may be in 2006...

China Prepares to Send a Probe to the Moon

Chinese artist rendition of China's Dongfanghong-3 satellite in space
Chinese artist view of a Dongfanghong-3 communications satellite in space. The Chang'e-1 lunar probe will be a Moon satellite based on this Earth satellite design. It would be launched on a Long March 3A rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China's southwestern Sichuan Province.
click to enlarge the illustration
China plans to launch a probe called Chang'e No. 1 in December 2006 to fly out to the Moon and enter lunar orbit. From there, it would send photos and science data back to Earth.

The Moon is nearly one-quarter-million miles away from Earth. Only Russia, Japan and the United States have sent spacecraft into orbit around the Moon.

Chang'e. The nation's major lunar exploration project is known as the Chang'e Project after an ancient Chinese legend about a beautiful young fairy who took a magic potion, flew to the Moon, and stayed there as Goddess of the Moon.

The Chinese exploration project would involve three stages, according to Luan Enjie, director of the Chinese National Space Administration:
  • orbiting the Moon in 2006
  • landing an unmanned rover on the Moon in 2010 or 2012
  • returning lunar soil and rock samples from the Moon around 2015
Only after those steps have been taken, might China land human beings on the Moon.

First phase. China would send a spacecraft to circle the Moon and map its surface to get three-dimensional images of the body from space. Chinese scientists would use the information sent back by the orbiter to analyze the lunar surface, measure the soil density, and generally explore the environment above and on the Moon.

Second phase. China would send one or more wheeled rovers to land on the surface, explore around their landing areas, and collect lunar soil for on-the-spot research. Data would be returned to China by radio.

Third phase. China would send wheeled rovers to explore the Moon and collect lunar soil, and then would return soil and rock samples to China for first-hand examination.

History of China's Lunar Exploration Plans

Chinese artist concept of China's Dongfanghong-3 satellite in space above Earth
Chinese art rendition of Dongfanghong above Earth.
The suggested project timeline would see China beginning its lunar exploration some 40 years after the USSR and the U.S. sent their first spacecraft to orbit the Moon:
  • On April 4, 1966, the Soviet Union launched Luna 10, the first spacecraft from Earth to orbit the Moon. Russia had tried to probe the Moon as early as 1958. Altogether, the USSR launched 24 exploration spacecraft in the Luna series from 1959-1976. They included crash landings on the lunar surface, fly-bys, landers, rovers, satellites in orbit, and sample return missions.

  • On August 10, 1966, the United States launched Lunar Orbiter 1. The Lunar Orbiter project included five satellites of the Moon launched in 1966-1967. The U.S. had other lunar explorers such as the Ranger project in 1964-1965. America had tried to probe the Moon as early as 1958.

  • In 1990, Japan sent its Muses-A robot science explorer into an Earth-Moon orbit. Later renamed Hiten, the unmanned explorer dropped off a miniature satellite called Hagoromo into lunar orbit as Hiten swung around the Moon.

  • The only country to have landed astronauts on the Moon is the United States, with its Apollo series of manned missions from 1969-1972.
China's entry. Chinese plans to explore the Moon have been known since as far back as at least November 2000 when a Chinese State Council White Paper mentioned exploring the Moon, according to China Daily.

Luan Enjie, China National Space Administration (CNSA) director, said China would finish the first phase of the Chang'e Programme by 2010, according to a March 2003 report in the state newspaper China Youth Daily.

In 2001, the head of CNSA was reported by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying that, first, the nation would like to build a series of robot probes to be launched on Long March rockets to land and explore the lunar surface. That research would be followed by manned flights and eventually colonization of the Moon.

The state-run newspaper China Daily said in 2001 that China is planning to send a human being to the Moon. In March 2003, China Daily reported the nation could send its first unmanned probe to the Moon within two and a half years. That would have been by September 2005.

The newspaper quoted Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's lunar exploration program and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as saying, "We will be able to embark on a maiden unmanned mission within two and a half years if the government endorses the scheme now."

Chinese launch sites
Chinese spaceports
Beijing senior space expert Sun Jiadong reportedly told the newspaper that China had the technology for an unmanned lunar probe. The first Chinese satellite of the Moon would be based on the Asian nation's Dongfanghong series of communications satellites. It would be launched toward the Moon on a Long March 3A rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

China would need to develop tracking and control systems for lunar orbiters and landers.

Why do it? Lunar exploration would allow China to "struggle for a more important place in the world space science field and raise our deep space exploration technology to a higher standard," according to Xinhua News Agency.

Lunar exploration would have an "immeasurable usefulness to raising national prestige and inspiring the nationalistic spirit," Xinhua said.

Chief scientist Ouyang Ziyuan said the Moon probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development, according to China Daily. Ouyang suggested China should not drag its feet on probing the Moon.

Ouyang said a piloted flight to the Moon had not been set as an official goal for China. Ultimately, the nation will send people there, Ouyang said, according to China Daily.

What's actually happened? China has taken firm steps along the way and drawn up concrete plans for exploring the Moon:
  • HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT: China launched a human being into Earth orbit in October 2003. It launched two more astronauts in one flight in October 2005.

  • LUNAR SATELLITE: China expects to launch a lunar satellite on a Long March 3a rocket in December 2006, according to CNSA director Luan Enjie, chief commander of the lunar satellite project.

    Chinese artist view of China's Dongfanghong-3 satellite in space above Earth
    Chinese artist concept of a Dongfanghong communications satellite in space.
    The satellite and rocket are to be completed in October 2006 for the December launch. The Moon is nearly one-quarter-million miles away from Earth.

    Weighing about 5,181 lbs. (2.6 tons), the satellite would orbit the Moon for at least 12 months, recording three-dimensional images of the surface, measuring the content and density of the Moon's soil, and exploring its environment, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The news agency said the satellite project would cost US$170 million (1.4 billion yuan).

    The satellite's 24 science sensors include a gamma ray spectrometer, an X-ray spectrometer, a microwave remote sensor, the 3D camera, an instrument to record the lunar spectrum, and an instrument to measure solar high-energy particles and solar wind ions.

    To be known as Chang'e-1, the lunar satellite will be based on the Dongfanghong-3 communications Earth satellite design. It would be launched on a Long March 3A rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China's southwestern Sichuan Province.

    A new ground station will receive data from Chang'e No. 1, according to Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist on the project.

  • LUNAR ROVER: Xinhua News Agency reported in 2004 that an unmanned vehicle would land on the Moon in 2010. However, the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper in 2004 quoted Ouyang Ziyuan, lead scientist of the country's lunar probe program, that China plans to send a Moon rover to the lunar surface in 2012.

    The rover would have a camera, a telescope and seismological equipment to register quake activity on the moon. The rover's main purpose would be to help locate a good place for a base on the moon.

  • LUNAR SAMPLE RETURN: Xinhua News Agency also reported in 2004 that a land-and-return mission would collect a soil sample by 2020 for return to Earth.

  • HUMAN LANDING ON MOON: Xinhua News Agency reported in 2004 that China's top space official said the country wants to land a human on the Moon in 2020. Also, the Beijing Youth Daily said in February 2004 that China plans to land a man on the Moon by 2020. However, Wang Yongzhi, a chief designer in the nation's space program, was quoted in a Beijing newspaper in 2004 as saying China shelved plans to put a man on the Moon for financial reasons.
Asian competition. Japan has two new Moon probes in the works. One is the Selenological and Engineering Explorer (SELENE), which may be launched in 2006. Japan also plans to send a lunar penetrator mission known as LUNAR-A to explore inside the Moon. It may fly in 2006 or later. The 1,200-lb. LUNAR-A satellite would drop seismometers and heat-flow probes in ground penetrators to study the lunar interior. Two penetrators would be dropped on the lunar surface – one on the nearside of the Moon and one on the farside.

India wants to send a lunar probe, Chardrayaan-1, to orbit the Moon in 2007-2008. It would conduct high-resolution remote sensing of the lunar surface and record images in visible, near infrared, X-ray and low energy gamma rays. Over two years, it would make a three-dimensional map of the lunar terrain and chart the locations of minerals. India also has said it would like to send its own manned mission to the moon before 2015.

American plans. NASA plans to launch a Moon satellite in 2008. The Lunar ReconnaissanceOrbiter (LRO) would be the first step in sending humans back to the Moon. The probe would fly around the Moon for at least a year, sending back detailed maps of the surface as well as data on the Moon's radiation levels and the resources in the polar regions that could be used by astronauts who might land there in the future.

Space station. Sixteen nations, not including China, are building the International Space Station in orbit. It is expected to be completed around 2010. Wang Yongzhi said China would go ahead with plans to build its own manned space station by 2020.

Learn More About China in Space

Shenzhou 5 and Yang Liwei: Chinese Lunar Exploration: Chinese Space Launch Sites: Chinese Space Rockets: Chinese Space Satellites: China's space industry: Learn more about China:


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