Space Programme

Out of this world

China gets one step closer to landing on the moon

Fly me to the moon: Chang’e-2

When you think of China and Mars, you may think of the US confectioner and its mouthwatering efforts to persuade a nation to tuck into its Dove chocolate bars (see WiC55).

But Beijing’s ambitions go beyond sweet-tooth targets. Chinese scientists reckon they will have the technical capacity to explore the actual planet Mars by 2013. Ye Pejian, Commander-in-Chief of China’s lunar exploration programme added that a Venus probe was on the cards for 2015 and the first manned moon landing will “hopefully” happen in 2025.

These grand forecasts got a boost at 6.59pm last Friday when China sent into orbit its second unmanned lunar probe. The Chang’e-2 – launched symbolically on National Day – achieved a new feat (for China, at least): it skipped orbiting the earth and went directly into the ‘earth-moon transfer orbit’.

“It is a major breakthrough of the rocket design, as it saves energy used by the satellite and speeds up the journey to the lunar orbit,” said Pang Zhihao, a researcher with the China Academy of Space Technology.

The Shanghai Daily reported that the lunar satellite is expected to take just five days to arrive at its lunar orbit as a result, considerably faster than the 12 days it took Chang’e-1 three years ago. On arrival it will orbit 15km above the moon, taking photos of the intended landing area for Chang’e-3, the rocket that should carry future Chinese astronauts to the moon’s surface.

Decades after Neil Armstrong touched down on lunar soil, China would like to repeat America’s giant leap for mankind. That day is edging closer. Two years ago their astronauts performed a space walk, and the speed and scale of the country’s space ambitions have surprised many, even as the US government grows reticent to fund NASA’s activities. According to a white paper penned in 2000, China talks of the construction of a solar-powered city on the moon as one of the great potential achievements of the 21st century.

Back on earth, New York Times columnist and author, Thomas Friedman has also been writing about China’s “moon shots”, by which he means “big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments.”

But Friedman thinks China’s transformative investments won’t be interplanetary ones, but closer to home: ultramodern airports; a web of high-speed trains (the subject of WiC’s first Talking Point, see issue 1); electric cars (see WiC75); and bioscience. In the case of bioscience, Friedman notes that the Beijing Genomics Institute has recently ordered 128 DNA sequencers (from the US) giving the Chinese institute more than any other in the world. They’ll be used to launch China’s own stem cell/genetic engineering industry.

Equally far from the moon, says Friedman, is America’s own big, multi-billion-dollar, 25-year-horizon investment. It’s called Afghanistan, he says.


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