China reportedly planning lunar exploration

Posted: March 3, 2003

The most detailed Chinese plans yet to explore the Moon using unmanned spacecraft were revealed Monday in state-run news sources that quoted the nation's leading scientists in the field.

Lunar orbiters, landers, and even rovers could be deployed throughout the coming decade to study the Moon's surface environment, leading eventually to a sample return mission or even a potential manned mission, which China has not detailed.

The plan is dubbed the "Chang'e Program" after a traditional Chinese legend about a young fairy flying to the Moon.

The proposal is still awaiting government approval, which would likely need to come soon if its first launch date in 2005 is to be met. That launch would send a satellite to orbit the moon, mapping its surface in great detail with three-dimensional images.

"We will be able to embark on a maiden unmanned mission within two-and-a-half years if the government endorses the scheme now," the Chinese People's Daily quoted Ouyang Ziyuan as saying. Ouyang is the chief scientist for China's lunar exploration efforts.

China's first robotic explorer to the Moon would also study the surface elements and composition along with the surrounding environment to aid in understanding of the lunar region and to help in planning for future missions.

Following the orbiter, the program would focus on landing remote-controlled rovers to further explore Earth's companion. One of these missions could include the return of lunar soil back to Earth, making China the third nation to collect samples of the Moon and return them to Earth after the United States and Russia last did so almost 30 years ago.

Ouyang said he believes the proposed exploration timeline is crucial because "Earth's nearest neighbor probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development."

Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration, said at a aerospace conference this weekend that the initial phase of the Chang'e Program could be completed by 2010.

To minimize costs and development time, Luan said the program would largely use existing technology. The Long March 3A rocket would be the launcher of choice for the lunar orbiter, which would be based upon a demonstrated satellite design.

Although no firm plans are in place for a manned lunar mission, officials say it is all but certain this will happen at some point in China's future.

Outlining goals for Chinese spaceflight activities over the next 10 years, the national space administration mentioned the newly released as one of the primary focuses of the coming decade. Also included were the manned spaceflight program, space science breakthroughs, and a possible plan to develop a new-generation booster to haul payloads into orbit.

This week's announcement comes just days before the National People's Congress when delegates will converge in Beijing, which could help attract the attention of the legislators to the program.

It also is just months in advance of the expected launch date for China's Shenzhou 5 spacecraft on the nation's first manned spaceflight as early as October.

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