Xichang, Sichuan : China launched its first lunar probe on Wednesday, the first step into its ambitious three-stage moon mission, marking a new milestone in the country’s space exploration history.
The circumlunar satellite Chang’e-1 blasted off on a Long March3A carrier rocket at 6:05 p.m. (10:05 GMT) from the No. 3 launch tower in the Xichang Satellite Launch Center of southwestern Sichuan Province.
Hundreds of domestic reporters and space experts from Japan, Germany, Italy and other countries invited by the Chinese space authorities gathered at the launch center to see the historic moment.
A total of 57 video cameras fixed to the launching tower recorded the ignition from different angles and scenes broadcast live on TV showed stupendous roars and shakes.
At the moment of blast, 400 tons of water pumped into the tower gutters beforehand was immediately heated into vapor.
“The launch was very successful, and everything is proceeding just as planned,” said Wu Ji, director of the Space Science and Applied Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
Chang’e-1 separated from carrier rocket at 6:29 p.m. and entered into a 16-hour orbit at 205 kilometers perigee and 50,930 kilometers apogee, according to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center (BACC).
It flied over the Chilean sky at around 6:50 p.m. and began to use solar energy for power supply after its solar panel was unfolded under the observation of the Chilean’s Center for Space Studies (CEE).
It is the first time for China to improve space mission monitoring coverage through international networks. Another three observation stations of the European Space Agency also provide support for this project.
The launch of the lunar probe “marks another milestone in China’s aerospace program following the launch of man-made satellite and manned space missions”, said Chinese vice-premier Zeng Peiyan at the Xichang launch center.
Zeng conveyed Chinese President Hu Jintao’s congratulations on the launch success and his regards to the scientists, technicians and army officers who have been working on the research, development and experiment of the lunar probe project.
Chang’e-1, named after a legendary Chinese goddess of moon, is expected to experience four accelerations and enter earth-moon transfer orbit on October 31 and arrive in the moon’s orbit on November 5.
Flying to the moon is the nation’s long cherished dream, as Chang’e has been worshipped as the “moon lady” for thousands of years. Legend has it that she floated toward the sky and finally landed on the moon after taking a bottle of elixir, where she became a goddess accompanied by a jade rabbit.
Chang’e-1 is so far the most sophisticated satellite China has ever built. Scientists will maneuver it at least 10 times before it arrives in the moon’s orbit. China’s Shenzhou VI manned spacecraft in 2005 was maneuvered three times by scientists in the flight control center.
Because of the repeated maneuvers, the fuel that the 2,300-kg Chang’e-1 carries accounts for nearly half of the satellite’s total weight, scientists said.
JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN
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.
It will carry out a series of projects including acquiring 3-D images and analyzing the distribution of elements on the moon’s surface.
Luan Enjie, chief commander of China’s lunar orbiter project, said that the moon mission in modern time will boost the development of human kind’s deep space explorations.
China’s space exploration, like that of other countries, belongs to humanity, and such exploration is an obligation and responsibility China should take, Luan said in an exclusive interview with Xinhua.
“China’s lunar probe project was not an attempt to emulate others, but rather an inevitable reflection of China’s improved overall strength,” he said.
China has developed an ability to launch an exploration satellite to the moon and a capability of stepping into deep space, and “that was the reason why China is implementing its lunar probe program,” he said.
“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,” he said, emphasizing that China will not be involved in moon race with any other country and in any form.
The moon, a planet closest to the Earth with a distance of 380,000 kilometers, has been the immediate focus of the human being’s space exploration. In the past 49 years, the United States, Soviet Union, Europe and Japan have launched 123 moon missions, among which 6 manned projects successfully sent 12 people to land on the moon. On Sept. 14, Japan launched its first lunar orbiter “Kaguya”, and India is planning to send its own lunar probe into space next April.
“The half-century exploration is not a long period compared with the entire human history in the pursuit of the unknown outer space. We felt very honored and proud to send the country’s first moon orbiter on behalf of all the Chinese people,” said Ye Peijian, chief commander and designer in charge of the satellite system.
Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the lunar exploration program, revealed that the lunar probe project only costs 1 to 1.4 billion yuan (about 133 to 187 million U.S. dollars), the same amount as the money used to construct two kilometers of subway in Beijing.
“The amount is not an astronomical number for China’s economy, but will boost the development of national science and technology instead,” Ouyang said.
China’s ambitious three-stage moon mission will lead to a moon landing and launch of a moon rover around 2012 in the second phase. 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 the third country in the world after the Soviet Union and the United Sates to send people into space. In October 2005, China completed its second manned space flight, with two astronauts on board.
Despite the nation’s heated public interests, the chance for amateur astronomy buffs to observe the moon orbiter is very slim since it is neither illuminated nor covered with a special surface to reflect light, a Chinese space expert said.
“The satellite will travel at a speed of seven to eight kilometers per second. An amateur telescope will not catch it, let alone follow it,” said Chen Xianfeng, an expert with Beijing Space Command and Control Center.
However, people’s curiosity to the unknown outer space will not be dampened. More than 2,000 tourists, each charged 800 yuan or more (about 107 U.S. dollars), watched the launch from nearby viewing platforms.
“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,” 55-year-old Sun Xiuying, a local villager told Xinhua.