China to launch lunar probe around 2013
Updated: 2011-09-22 06:37
BEIJING - China is shooting for the stars in preparation for the future launch of its Chang'e-3 lunar probe, a move that is in line with the country's desire to eventually build a space station.
National authorities said Wednesday that China will launch the Chang'e-3 around 2013, marking the first time for a Chinese spacecraft to land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body.
The mission will also mark the first step of the second stage of China's ambitious three-phase lunar exploration program, although a timetable for a manned moon landing has yet to be announced.
The probe's mission is to land safely on the moon and carry out a number of scientific experiments, according to sources with State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.
China began its quest for the moon in October 2007, when it launched its first lunar probe, the Chang'e-1. The probe went into orbit around the moon, transmitting pictures of the moon's surface back to Earth before crashing to the surface at the end of its mission under the direction of Chinese scientists.
China's second moon orbiter, the Chang'e-2, sent back its first batch of data while orbiting the second Lagrange Point (L2) about 1.7 million km away from Earth. The orbiter is still in space and is scheduled to travel around the L2 orbit until the end of 2012, according to the administration.
The data it sent back was obtained by the orbiter's gamma-ray spectrometer, high-energy solar particle detector and solar wind ion detector while it traveled from the moon's orbit to its current position.
The Chang'e-2 will carry out exploratory activities around the L2, such as monitoring high-energy particles and solar winds.
Li Chunlai, one of designers for the lunar probe project, said the Chang'e-2 will be the first moon orbiter in the world to observe solar winds for a fairly long time around the L2, a prime position for studying solar winds.
The Chang'e-2 entered the L2 orbit, where gravity from the sun and Earth balances the orbital motion of a satellite, in late August and has been operating in stable condition for 26 days.
There are five Lagrange Points about 1.5 million km from the Earth in the exact opposite direction from the sun. Positioning a spacecraft at any of these points allows it to stay in a fixed position relative to the Earth and sun with a minimal amount of energy needed for course correction.
Liu Dongkui, deputy chief commander of China's lunar probe project, said the Chang'e-2 had extended the traveling range for China's spacecraft from 400,000 km to 1.7 million km.
The Chang'e-2 is also the first spacecraft in China to undertake multiple tasks in one mission, and the world's first to leave the moon's orbit for the L2, Liu said.
Although Chang'e-2 was only designed to work in space for six months, the administration assigned it additional tasks as the orbiter still had fuel in its reserve tanks.
Before arriving at its current position, the Chang'e-2 took photos of the northern and southern poles of the moon. It then descended to a lower orbit, approximately 15 km away from the moon's surface, where it captured high-resolution images of the Sinus Iridum (Latin for "Bay of Rainbows"), an area where China's future moon probes may land.
During the third phase of the country's lunar probe program, another rover will land on the moon and return to Earth with lunar soil and stone samples for scientific research around 2017.
Although the country's attempt to sent an experimental satellite into Earth's orbit failed in August, China is still working to promote its space program.
China's space authorities announced on Tuesday that they will launch the unmanned experimental craft Tiangong-1 as early as next week. It is scheduled to rendezvous and dock with another unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou-8, which will be launched on a later date.
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