China moves up moon orbiter launch date

/ Source: The Associated Press

China has moved up the launch of a moon-orbiting satellite by one year to 2006, state media said Friday, adding momentum to the space program that got a massive boost from October's successful manned flight.

The lunar mission, originally scheduled for 2007, will place a two-ton satellite into orbit around the moon for at least a year, the official Xinhua News Agency said Friday.

The satellite would record three-dimensional images of the moon's surface, it said.

China's lunar exploration program has shifted into high gear following last year's successful launch of the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft with astronaut Yang Liwei aboard.

It made China the third country after the United States and Russia to put a man into space, providing massive prestige to the Communist regime and the military-linked space program.

The lunar orbiter and its 280-pound payload will be based on China's existing Dongfanghong 3 satellite and other indigenous technology, Xinhua said. A Chinese Long March III A rocket will be used to launch the satellite, it said.

Xinhua cited China National Space Administration Luan Enjie, the chief commander of the lunar satellite project, saying work had begun on the satellite, its launch vehicle and support systems. It said Luan delivered his comments Thursday at the first national work meeting on the project.

The lunar program — named Chang'e after a legendary Chinese goddess who flew to the moon — aims to eventually place an unmanned vehicle on the moon by 2010. Plans also call for a vehicle to land by 2020 that would collect soil samples and conduct other tests, possibly in preparation for a manned moon base.

Xinhua gave the budget for the initial phase of the program as $170 million. It said the launch would take place from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

Along with the lunar mission, a second manned space flight — this time carrying more than one astronaut — is planned for next year. Longer-term plans call for a space station.

The report adds to China's growing openness about its space program, whose plans, costs and launch dates were once closely guarded secrets.