Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The blastoff at 6.05 pm (Beijing time) from the Xichang satellite launch centre in Sichuan province went off without a hitch, televised live nationwide and around the world. The moon orbiter, which cost 1.4 billion yuan, separated from the rocket 24 minutes after launch and entered into a 16-hour orbit.
The event was covered by Chinese media wall-to-wall, proudly showing technicians, officials, people on street, national flags and celebration banners raised, spectators flashing the "V" sign for victory, almost as if it were the dawning of a new age.
Planetariums saw many people come to see the probe close-up, discussing the chances of life on the Moon or wondering whether the spacecraft will plant the Chinese flag on the earth’s only natural satellite.
For technicians and officials this is a “crucial step” in China’s space programme, one that is only scientific in nature.
“China will not be involved in a moon race with any other country,” said Mr Luan Enjie, chief commander of the lunar orbiter project.
However, that is not how the United States, Japan, India and even Brazil are seeing things. Each of them has renewed its interest in the moon and is drawing up plans for lunar missions.
Scientists are especially interested in the moon because research might unravel several mysteries about the universe. Also the satellite is rich in helium-3, an isotope that is a non-radioactive source of fusion energy rarely found on Earth.
“In many countries, they needed decades of planning and preparation,” Chen Yongqi, head of the Department of Land Surveying and Geo-Informatics at the Polytechnic University, told the South China Morning Post. “But in China, the process is so fast.”
“Doesn't it look like a dragon?” said Zhu Yousheng, a Chengdu businessman who paid 800 yuan for a ticket to see the event.
Some, with a touch of cynicism, said that at least at one level the blastoff has certainly yielded up some interesting consumer goods.
Demand for the spacecraft crystal and metal-alloy model—scales 1:50—was so high that it was at first priced at 1,880 yuan and is now sold at 880 yuan each
But not every one is so keen on the aerospace project. Liu Chuanmei, a software engineer in Beijing, said that in her opinion “the state pours so much money into the space project just to show its power.”
For his part, Wu Mingfa, a farmer Chuanxing County (Xichang) near the launch site, is more interested in the injustice perpetrated by local officials.
“If we have the ability to send a satellite to the moon,” he asks, “why is it so difficult to send all corrupt officials to prison?”
Across the Taiwan Strait the authorities were silent on the orbiter's launch but the island's military experts are concerned by the “leap forward” in the mainland’s space programme.
Alexander Wang Chieh-cheng, professor of strategic studies and director of the Graduate Institute of American Studies of Tamkang University, said there was no need for Beijing to use the high-orbit rocket to deal with the island since it had plenty of low-end weapons, such as close to 1,000 missiles pointed at the island nation.
For Sun Jiwen, a rocket expert and a senior People's Liberation Army space security adviser, lunar exploration projects involve the whole of humanity and multinational co-operation on lunar research was inevitable.
By contrast, Teng Jianqun, director of the Research Department of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, believes that “space will become weaponised as more and more nations can afford it. Negotiation on rules in space must start now or it will be too late.” (PB)