China plans to launch its unmanned lunar landing programme in 2004, with a lunar satellite by 2007, a senior Chinese space official was quoted by Xinhua News Agency as saying yesterday. Sun Laiyan, deputy director of the China National Space Administration, said the satellite, part of the three-stage programme, would be followed by the landing of an unmanned vehicle on the Moon in the second stage by 2010 and collecting samples of lunar soil by 2020 in the final stage.
But he said the last two stages of the project were still under review by scientists before official approval. The satellite project was designed to obtain three-dimensional images of the lunar surface, analyze the content of useful elements and materials on the surface, and probe the depth of the lunar soil and the space environment between the Earth and the Moon, Sun said.
China would use its Long March III-A launch vehicle to launch the satellite. It will be based on its Dongfanghong satellite platform, Sun said. He described the project as an important step for China’s exploration into deeper space, and noted the Moon would provide a good platform from which to probe into the universe.
The lunar effort is also known as the Chang’e Programme, referring to a goddess who reached the Moon in an ancient Chinese fairy tale. Experts said the launches do not mean that China now has the ability to conduct manned landing on the Moon.
Ouyang Ziyuan, China’s chief scientist on Moon probe and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in an earlier interview with Xinhua that the probe of the Moon is different from manned landings on the Moon. China still has very limited idea of the Moon and, after all, it will be the first time that the country has sent up a lunar satellite, he said. China will not be able to achieve manned landings on the Moon until the three-stage programme is accomplished, he said. Before a manned landing, the analysis of data gained during the programme will be made and how well the probe of the Moon will be developed internationally and China’s State power will also be taken into account, he added.
The launch of the lunar programme is a step forward for China’s ambition to probe outer space, which was made even stronger after the successful launch of the country’s first manned spaceship, the Shenzhou V in October. China became only the third country in the world, behind the United States and the former Soviet Union (now Russia) to conduct manned space flights.