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Plans to Study Asteroids in the Making

China's space scientists plan to develop spacecraft to study asteroids in the near future, according to experts at the annual conference of the China Association for Science and Technology.

The Beijing Morning Post on Monday quoted an unnamed expert with the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. as saying the study of asteroids or comets is a part of China's space program.

The Chinese spacecraft would probably land on the asteroids or crash into minor planets, similar to NASA's Deep Impact mission, the expert said.

The study of asteroids is significant to the search for life outside Earth, experts said.

Japan has also sent spacecraft to probe asteroids.

Asteroids, made up largely of rock and metal, orbit the Sun, but are too small to be considered planets. They are known as minor planets and can be as big as, for example, Ceres, with a diameter of about 1,000 km, or as small as a pebble.

There are sixteen asteroids with diameters of at least 240 km. They have been found inside the Earth's orbit to beyond Saturn's orbit. Most, however, are contained within a main belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Some have orbits that cross the Earth's path and some have even hit the Earth's surface.

Asteroids are material left over from the formation of the solar system. Much of mankind's understanding of asteroids comes from examining pieces of space debris that fall to Earth.

Before 1991, the only information obtained on asteroids was through Earth-based observations. Then in October that year, the Galileo spacecraft reached asteroid 951 Gaspra, which was studied more closely with high-resolution images.

(Xinhua News Agency September 19, 2006)

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