China striving to launch satellite to orbit moon in late 2006

China will strive to launch a satellite to orbit the moon by December of 2006 from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, southwest China, the country's top space official said Thursday.

The tentative plan for the launch is one year earlier than was announced late last year. Sun Laiyan, vice-director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), said last December the satellite will be launched by 2007.

Luan Enjie, CNSA director and chief commander of the lunar satellite project, said Thursday research and development of five major systems of the project are under way. They are the satellite system, the launch vehicle system, the launch site system, the survey and control system and the ground application system.

The project has government funding of 1.4 billion yuan (about170 million US dollars).

Addressing the first work meeting on the project, Luan said the project has been named Chang'e Project, while the first lunar satellite has been named Chang'e No.1. Chang'e refers to a goddess who flew to the moon in an ancient Chinese fairy tale.

According to the design, the satellite system consists of a satellite platform and payload, which will be based on China's Dongfanghong 3 satellite platform and payload and other mature satellite technology. The satellite will be 2,350 kg in weight with 130 kg of payload, and will orbit the moon for one year.

A home-made Long March III A carrier rocket will be used to launch the satellite.

The satellite would obtain three-dimensional images of the lunar surface, analyze the content of useful elements and materials, and probe the depth of the lunar soil and the space environment between the earth and the moon.

China's lunar probe program is divided into three phases. The first phase of the program for sending a satellite to orbit the moon is underway. It would be followed by a proposed landing of an unmanned vehicle on the moon in the second stage by 2010, and collecting samples of lunar soil with an unmanned vehicle by 2020 in the third phase.

Lunar probes are always a subject of great interest, given the Earth's nearest neighbour probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development, experts said.

The moon contains various special resources for humanity to develop and use, Luan said. The moon will provide a good platform from which to explore outward at longer distances.

He said China's unmanned fly-by mission will obtain three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and analyze the content and distribution of useful elements on the moon's surface, measure the density of lunar soil and explore the environment between the moon and Earth.

"The achievements of China's first lunar exploration will surely provide useful new information for humanity's moon research and resources investigation," Luan said.

Although China has accumulated some expertise and experience in space activities, lunar exploration is a challenging and arduous task, said Sun Jiadong, chief architect of the lunar probe project.

"It is not just that we are sending a satellite farther away than we did in the past," Sun said. "We've got to work out every single problem regarding satellite, rocket and tracking systems."

To send the orbiter to circle the moon, which is on average more than 384,000 kilometres away from the Earth, Chinese scientists will have to readjust the speed of the orbiter many times after it blasts off, said Ye Peijian, chief designer of the project's satellite system.

Following the fly-by project, China will proceed to soft-land an unmanned vehicle on the moon and then to scoop up lunar samples for return to Earth, according to Luan.

The fly-by, landing and returning phases are expected to be completed in 20 years, Luan said.

The world has seen the second upsurge of lunar exploration since late 1990s, following the first round in 1950s, according to Luan.

United States astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Earlier this year, the US announced that it planed to "return to the moon."

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