Credit: National Space Science Data Center
China’s first lunar orbiter was launched into space today and is expected to reach orbit around the Moon by the beginning of November. The satellite, named Chang’e 1, after a Chinese goddess, will spend a year in orbit to test the technology and to study the lunar environment and its surface features in preparation for future missions. China’s long-term mission plans for the Moon include sending an unmanned rover in 2012 and, by 2020, a manned mission to assemble a permanent space lab.
According to NASA’s National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC), to obtain scientific objectives, the Chinese satellite will include five types of instruments: a stereo camera system, to map the lunar surface; an altimeter, to measure the topography; a gamma/x-ray spectrometer, to study the overall composition and radioactive components of the Moon; a microwave radiometer, to map the thickness of the lunar regolith; and a system of space environment monitors, to collect data on the solar wind and near-lunar region.
The launch of the lunar orbiter signifies an important step in China’s hope of gaining a more substantial presence in space, but it also has many experts and analysts wondering whether a space race may be looming. The Chinese government and the chief commander of the orbiter project have made official statements saying that they have no intention of engaging in a space race with other Asian countries, including Japan and India, or with the United States and Russia.
Japan launched a lunar orbiter in September, and the United States and India have plans to launch lunar orbiters in 2008.