Image: Jiuquan Space Center
An image snapped by the commercial Ikonos satellite shows China's Jiuquan Space Center. Click here or on the photo to see a zoom view.
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updated 10/9/2003 7:48:21 AM ET 2003-10-09T11:48:21

A U.S.-built commercial satellite has used its high-power camera to focus on China’s sprawling Jiuquan Space Launch Center in northwestern Gansu Province, from where the country plans to make its first human foray into space.

Space.com
ZOOMING HUNDREDS of miles above the Chinese rocket complex, the Ikonos satellite — operated by Space Imaging Inc. of Thornton, Colo. — snapped the impressive photo on Sept. 29 as the satellite moved from north to south over China. Clouds thwarted a follow-on camera shooting session of the area. SPACE.com obtained the image Tuesday night.

The Ikonos is Space Imaging’s flagship satellite, a commercially developed spacecraft lofted in September 1999. Lockheed Martin built the satellite, Eastman Kodak provided the sophisticated camera sensor, and Raytheon developed the ground station, communications and image processing equipment to receive the images taken from space.

Caught by the satellite’s camera eye is China’s remote desert launching site, where space engineers and rocket crews are busily readying China’s bid to become the third nation capable of launching humans into Earth orbit.

That historic mission, according to Chinese space officials, is to occur next week. Work is proceeding on schedule, they report, in preparing both a Long March 2F booster and a Shenzhou 5 spaceship for the mission.

A target date of Oct. 15 has been set, Xie Guangxuan, director of China Rocket Design Department, said in an interview posted on Sina.com, a leading Chinese Web site.

“China’s space technology has been created by China itself,” Xie was quoted as saying. “We may have started later than Russia and the United States, but it’s amazing how fast we’ve been able to do this.”

Xie added that he is fully confident about the success of the Shenzhou 5 flight.

HOW MANY ORBITS?

The launch of the 8-ton Shenzhou — whose name means “sacred vessel” in Chinese — is to be televised on China Central Television Channel 4 and 9. Whether the craft will carry more than one pilot remains unknown.

In the interview carried by People’s Daily, Xie indicated that the flight reportedly is to last 90 minutes, orbiting the Earth once. But other sources have suggested the mission would last about a day, and on Thursday, the Liberation Daily of Shanghai reported that 14 orbits are planned. The newspaper cited “relevant channels” as its sources.

Who will be selected from a class of 14 trained Shenzhou pilots to make space exploration history is unknown. However, rumors now circulating in China point to Li Qinglong, one of a 1996 class of astronauts who trained in Russia.

The Beijing Star Daily has reported that the astronauts are now at the Jiuquan Space Center, and three would be chosen as the finalists to take China’s first piloted trip in the Shenzhou spaceship.

To date, there have been four unpiloted shakeout flights of the Shenzhou, in November 1999, January 2001, March 2002 and December 2002.

British space analyst Phillip Clark told Space.com that all appears to be going well in readying the Shenzhou 5 and the Long March booster for the historic mission.

“I am just patiently waiting for news. After all, China isn’t racing anyone…so there’s no great rush,” Clark said.

This report includes updates from MSNBC.com.© 2003 Space.com. All rights reserved.

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