October 24, 2012
On Oct. 24, 2007, China launched the Chang’e 1, a lunar orbit satellite designed to take high-resolution photographs of the Moon’s surface. The images, first transmitted on Nov. 26, 2007, were made into a three-dimensional map for the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program’s planned lunar landings, which are scheduled to begin launching in 2013.
The China National Space Administration, which grew out of the country’s plans in the 1950s (successfully completed in the mid-1960s) for nuclear ballistic missile capability to challenge the Soviet Union and United States, manages an aggressive space agenda.
China launched its first satellite in April 1971. It began commercial satellite launches in 1985, and on Oct. 15, 2003, placed its first astronaut in orbit. Since then the agency has expanded to four launch sites and initiated several space programs: the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program begun in 2007; Project 921 for a manned space station to be launched by 2020; Mars 500 for both un-crewed and crewed missions to Mars from 2014 to 2060; and plans for a space weather system to be launched in 2017.
The agency’s near-term goals as stated in 2003, just after the successful manned mission, are: create an earth observation system; establish an independent satellite navigation and position system; improve China’s launch vehicle payload capacity; expand manned space projects; establish a coordinated satellite remote-sensing system; and expand space science and explore outer space, starting with the moon.
Begun in 2004, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program does not have an official goal of placing astronauts on the moon, but observers consider that future lunar missions indicate a manned landing is planned.
Chang’e 1, the spacecraft are named for the Chinese Moon goddess, was originally to be launched in April 2007. The satellite was scheduled to orbit for one year, but the mission was extended, and was deliberately crashed onto the moon’s surface on March 1, 2009; 175 gigabytes of data were transmitted during the mission.
Chang’e 2 was launched directly to the moon on Oct. 1, 2010 for a low-orbit mission with a higher resolution camera. The satellite completed its lunar mission and moved to the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point to test the Chinese tracking and control network; it arrived at L2 on Aug. 25, 2011. In April 2012, the satellite left L2 to make a flyby of the asteroid 4179 Toulatis (which it should do on Dec. 12).
Chang’e 3 is scheduled to launch in 2013 with a mission to make a soft-landing on the lunar surface with a lunar rover payload. It would be the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Union Luna 24 landing in 1976. The Chang’e 3 landing target is the Sinus Iridium, balsatic lava plain of the Mare Imbrium.
Chang’e 4 is a fourth lunar mission and scheduled to launch in 2015.
The Chang’e 1 launch was preceded a Japanese mission, SELENE (Kaguya), on Sep. 27; it was Japan’s second lunar mission, the first was the Hiten probe in 1990. India launched its first lunar mission on Oct. 22, 2008, the Chandrayaan-1.
The European Space Agency also had a lunar mission, SMART-1, which was launched on Sept. 27, 2003.
NASA has launched two lunar missions since Chang’e 1. On June 18, 2009, it launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite to map the moon. And, on Sept. 10, 2011, it launched the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, a mission that is still ongoing.
NASA plans to launch the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer in early 2013.