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China counts down for its own comet mission

Two days after NASA's Deep Impact probe smashed into a comet, Chinese space experts were quoted as saying that they were drawing up their own plans for a similar mission.
/ Source: Reuters

Two days after NASA's Deep Impact probe smashed into a comet, Chinese space experts were quoted as saying that they were drawing up their own plans for a similar mission.

The third nation to launch a man into space has lofty space ambitions that include putting two astronauts into orbit later this year and eventually sending up a space station and even a manned mission to the moon.

"Actually, our country has its own Deep Impact plans, it's just we've never revealed them to the public before," the Beijing News quoted Chinese astronomer Zhao Haibin as saying. "Right now, our focus is on a moon probe, but once that's successful, we will immediately start pursuing this plan."

The main goal of NASA's Deep Impact mission was to knock free primordial materials from the nucleus of Comet Tempel 1 that could unlock secrets of how life formed on Earth.

China's mission would instead be mainly aimed at protecting the planet from being hit by a comet or asteroid, Zhao said, referring to the kind of doomsday scenario shown in the 1998 film "Deep Impact," which carried the same name as the NASA spacecraft.

As opposed to NASA's "impacting" method, China would use a "more clever" method that could be called "pasting," he said. Zhao explained that the plan was to soft-land a craft with an engine capable of pushing a comet or asteroid off a collision course.

Zhao said that by the end of June, he and other astronomers at the Nanjing Zijinshan Observatory in eastern China had monitored more than 700 space rocks potentially on track to hit the Earth.

But China still had to overcome technical obstacles before it could send a comet collider into space, Xinhua news agency quoted Huang Chunping, the lead engineer behind the rocket that sent China's first man into space in 2003, as saying.

"We still need to make sure that scientific data could be successfully transmitted back to Earth via the impactor's mothership," Huang said.