China is well on its way to sending an unmanned space probe to fly to the moon, with the first orbiting spacecraft expected to take off within three years, chief lunar exploration scientists confirmed Monday.
"We are following the prescribed order of developing the necessary systems for lunar exploration, such as those for orbiter control and monitoring, data processing as well as the carrier rocket and explorer satellite," said Ouyang Ziyuan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Lunar probes are always a subject of great interest, given the Earth's nearest neighbor probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development, experts said.
Ouyang, chief scientist of the lunar exploration project, said Chinese technicians and experts are working hard to ensure the success of the nation's maiden lunar mission.
They are developing China's first lunar exploration craft, which, weighing around two tons, is projected to orbit the moon for at least 12 months.
The lunar orbiter was named "Chang'e-I," an apparent reference to an ancient legend about the fairy Chang'e who flew to the moon.
To send the orbiter to circle the moon, which is on average around 384,400 kilometers 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 spacecraft.
It will take up to nine days for the lunar orbiter to reach its preset orbit around the moon, the latest issue of China Space News quoted Ye as saying.
China's lunar exploration program has gained expertise and experience from the country's first manned space flight, which was conducted in mid-October, Ouyang said without elaborating.
Sending an unmanned craft to orbit the moon only constitutes the first phase of China's lunar probe scheme, Ouyang said.
In addition to obtaining three-dimensional images of the lunar surface, this part of the mission will also deal with analyzing the content and distribution of useful elements on the moon's surface, measure the density of lunar soil and explore the lunar environment, according to Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration.
Luan said earlier he anticipated the orbiting phase to be completed by 2007 and the country will send a probe which will land and return from the moon with lunar soil and rock samples by 2010.
(China Daily December 9, 2003)