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China's moon orbiter a big step in space plan

Nation lags behind U.S., Russia - says goal is peaceful exploration
(10-25) 04:00 PDT Beijing - --

China sent a satellite rocketing toward lunar orbit Wednesday evening, the latest step in an ambitious national program to shoot more astronauts into space, build a space station and eventually land Chinese astronauts on the moon.

The Chang'e 1 satellite - named after a goddess who flew to the moon in Chinese legend - was atop a white-painted Long March 3A rocket that blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province in central China. Liftoff was at 6:05 p.m. local time (3:05 a.m. Wednesday PDT) about 1,000 miles southwest of Beijing.

The China National Space Administration said Chang'e was scheduled to enter a lunar orbit Nov. 5 and send back images and analyses of the moon's surface for about a year.
The trouble-free launch was heralded by commentators and broadcast live on government television, underlining the Communist Party's desire to cultivate national pride in a growing list of accomplishments in space. The event was scheduled just two days after a national party congress acclaimed Hu Jintao for a second five-year term as party leader, president and military chief.

"The launch shows our comprehensive state power," said Jiao Weixin, a professor at Peking University's School of Earth and Space Sciences. "It can help to improve our image in the world. Chinese would feel excited and greatly encouraged by just having a Chinese Nobel Prize winner, let alone having the chance to prove to the world our capability to explore space."
Jiao noted that China, which first shot a man into space in 2003 and repeated the exploit with a two-person team in 2005, still lags far behind the United States and Russia in space exploration. Japan put a satellite into lunar orbit for the first time on Oct. 5, and India has a similar attempt on the drawing board. But Jiao described Wednesday's launch as a milestone for China's efforts, signifying Chinese engineers have the know-how to probe the moon.

In addition to its role as a rallying point for patriotism, China's 50-year-old space exploration program has begun to return commercial profits. Chinese rockets have for a number of years been launching other countries' satellites at attractive rates. In May, Chinese technicians launched a Chinese-manufactured communications satellite for Nigeria, marking the first time the Chinese built a commercial satellite and sent it into orbit on contract for another country.
"By launching the lunar orbiter, we can further improve our technology for launch vehicles, satellite signal transmission and even facilities at the launch site," Jiao said. "This can help to extend our technology to the business field, like launching satellites for other countries."
Officials at the launch site were definitely into the business spirit. They charged tourists a little more than $100 each for access to two viewing platforms.

Chinese leaders emphasize that their goal is peaceful space exploration in cooperation with other nations, but the fast-paced and well-funded program has generated concerns that there could be military applications.

The military has been in charge of space exploration from the beginning. Troops successfully tested an anti-satellite missile last January, destroying an out-of-date weather satellite in what some analysts interpreted as a sign that U.S. military satellites could be vulnerable in case of conflict over the Taiwan Strait.

China has plans to follow up the Chang'e 1 mission with an attempt to land a craft on the moon and deploy a vehicle to rove the lunar surface within the next five years. The Chinese space administration said if that experiment is successful, the next step, over the subsequent five years, would be to send a ship to the moon that could gather soil samples and return to Earth.