10/24/2007, 00.00
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Lift off for Chinese lunar probe

For the next year the probe will navigate the moon collecting images and data. A human mission to the moon in programme for 2020. Beijing aims to affirm itself as a power in space, for economic and political reasons.

allowing, from the Xichang launch centre in Sichuan at 18.05 Beijing time, carried by a Long March 3A rocket. Torrential rain in the early morning has however raised fears of a delay.

Li Guoping, spokesman for the China National Space Administration says the Chang’e rocket (the name of a Chinese goddess who flew to the moon) is set to enter orbit on November 5th.   The project’s goal is to analyse the chemical and mineral composition of the lunar surface using stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers. It is expected to transmit its first photo back to China in the second half of November, and to conduct explorations of the moon for a year. Beijing is searching for new energy sources: The moon is a potential source of a helium isotope known as helium-3 that scientists believe could be a potent fuel for fusion reactions to produce energy on Earth. Tourists can participate in the launch by paying 800 Yuan (105 dollars circa) from the two observation platforms at the launch centre.

This September Japan successfully launched a lunar missile. India too is programming its own lunar probe launch set for April.  China is the first Asian state to send an astronaut into space in 2003 and wants to send a vehicle to the moon capable of collecting rocks and moon dust from the lunar surface by 2012 and human mission by 2020- The same year that NASA has declared it wants to send astronauts to the moon.  In 2007 Beijing destroyed one of its own ageing atmospheric satellites by hitting it with a round missile, raising fears of an escalating space arms race.

The probe also has a significant economic meaning, given that China aims to compete with the United States, Europe, Russia and Japan on the market for satellite launches:  Between 1990 and 1998, China sent 29 overseas satellites into space for more than 10 countries and regions, accounting for about 8 per cent of the market and making China the third largest rocket supplier in the world. But since then the US restriction has effectively shut down China's international trade in the space sector. That obstacle is a ban imposed in 1999 by the US State Department on China's launching a US satellite or any satellite from a country that uses US-made components, in order to avoid Beijing’s development of its missile technology, particularly in the military field . But Beijing succeeded in improving its technologies, selling a satellite to Nigeria in 2004 and Venezuela in 2005, both launched in 2007 with Chinese rockets. Beijing is urging national pride, repeating that it has developed the necessary technologies on its own. (PB)


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