China counting down to launch of its first lunar probe

By Xinhua

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Xichang, Sichuan : Chinese press and thousands of tourists have gathered at China’s Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern Sichuan Province to witness the launch of the nation’s first moon orbiter, which is scheduled to take place at 6:05 p.m. on Wednesday.

Hundreds of domestic reporters, more than 2,000 tourists from all over the country, and space experts from Japan, Germany, Italy and other countries invited by the Chinese space authorities have gathered at the launch center, waiting to see the historic moment.

“I’ve seen launches of satellites for more than 20 times, but it’s the first time for me to see so many people coming here,” said 55-year-old Sun Xiuying, a local villager.

Space center experts were worried earlier in the day when Xichang experienced an unexpected torrential rainfall from about 4:05 a.m. till 7:10 a.m. on Wednesday, but they were able to breathe a sigh of relief when the weather cleared.

Both the national and local meteorological observatory forecast cloudy weather for the launch site on Wednesday afternoon. However they said they believed it would not affect the launch mission, a sentiment that was echoed by technological staff at the site.

Local villagers within a radius of 2.5 km of the launch site and under the trajectory of the carrier have been told to move to safe areas two hours prior to the anticipated launch.

Tourists have been charged 800 yuan (105 U.S. dollars) to witness the launch of China’s first lunar satellite. A local travel agency has said that the two observation platforms are capable of holding 2,000 and 500 people respectively, but it is not known how many people paid for the chance.

Built in 1970, more than 30 domestic and international satellites have been sent into space from Xichang, the second satellite launch center in China. Jiuquan in northwestern Gansu Province hosted China’s first rocket launch in 1958 and another facility is in Taiyuan, northern Shanxi Province.

The moon orbiter, Chang’e-1, named after a legendary Chinese goddess who flew to the moon, and the carrier Long March 3A have passed all pre-launch tests.

Chang’e-1 weighs about 2,300 kg in total, and Long March 3A has carried out 14 successful launching missions before.

The lunar probe is expected to enter earth-moon transfer orbit on Oct. 31 and arrive in the moon’s orbit on Nov. 5.

The satellite will relay the first picture of the moon in late November and will then continue scientific explorations of the moon for a year.

Advanced cameras and X-ray spectrometers have been installed in the orbiter for mapping three-dimensional images of the lunar surface, analyzing the distribution of elements on the moon’s surface, and studying the space environment between the Earth and the moon.

China hopes to become the 17th nation to join the International Space Station (ISS) project, Vice Minister of Science and Technology Li Xueyong said last week.

The International Space Station is a joint project of 16 nations including the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and 11 countries from the European Space Agency.

The satellite launch will mark the first step of China’s three-stage moon mission, which will lead to a moon landing and launch of a moon rover around 2012.

In the third phase, another rover will land on the moon and return to earth with lunar soil and stone samples for scientific research around 2017.

China carried out its maiden piloted space flight in October 2003, making it only the third country in the world after the Soviet Union and the United States to have sent men into space. In October 2005, China completed its second manned space flight, with two astronauts on board.

In mid-September, Japan launched its first lunar probe, and India is planning to send its own lunar probe into space next April.

But Luan Enjie, chief commander of China’s lunar orbiter project, told Xinhua before the launch that “China will not be involved in moon race with any other country and in any form.”

“China will, in the principle of pursuing a policy of peaceful use of airspace, share the achievements of the lunar exploration with the whole world,” Luan said.

“I believe that will boost the development of human kind’s deep space explorations,” he added.