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China Launches First Lunar Probe


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BEIJING (AP) — Embarking on an ambitious 10-year moon exploration program, China launched its first lunar probe Wednesday — a leap forward in the Asian space race that gave a boost to national pride, and the promise of scientific and military payoffs.


Just a week ago, Japan put a probe into orbit around the moon, and India is likely to join the rivalry soon, with plans to send its own lunar probe into space in April.


The Long March 3A rocket left a trail of smoke Wednesday as it soared into cloudy skies from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the southwestern province of Sichuan.


Twenty-four minutes later, the Chang'e 1 satellite — named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon — separated from the carrier rocket on a trajectory to reach lunar orbit in 13 days.


"The launch of China's first moon probe satellite is successful!" Xu Fuxiang, a professor from the China Institute of Space Technology, declared on state television, which broadcast the launch live.


"We have passed through the most difficult time," he said after the rocket and satellite separated. "It should be heading smoothly toward the moon."


The lunar mission adds depth to a Chinese space program that has sent astronauts orbiting around the Earth twice in the past four years.


President Hu Jintao and other Chinese leaders sent congratulations, the official Xinhua News Agency said.


Though national pride is one benefit of the space program, China is also looking for scientific and military benefits.


Wednesday's launch marks the first step of a three-stage moon mission. In about 2012 there will be a moon landing with a moon rover. In the third phase, about five years later, another rover will land on the moon and be returned to Earth with lunar soil and stone samples.


"It's a very significant launch," said Charles Vick, a space analyst for the Washington think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "It certainly demonstrates that China is pushing its sciences and technology ... at the same time demonstrating its national space program to its own people."


It also puts China squarely at the forefront in Asia, said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the national security decision-making department of the Naval War College in Rhode Island.


"In Asia, there are a lot of countries looking for who will be the next regional leader," she said. "Showing you have technical capability certainly lends the idea that you are the leading country in the region."


"For the Chinese, there's also a great deal of domestic credibility," she said. "It lends a lot of credibility to the Communist Party."


Earlier this month, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in unusually candid remarks that he thought China will get to the moon before the United States can meet a 2020 deadline for a return visit.


"It is a prestige issue," said Michael Auslin, resident scholar in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "China has had a more extensive space program than Japan, they've launched astronauts into space, so they clearly don't want to be seen as giving up superiority to Japan."


In addition, the launch shows China is able to build and use the best technology, which has domestic, economic and military implications, he said. "Ultimately, it's about strategic advantage," he said. "They clearly see space as a new area of potential competition ... this is moving in new directions, away from sea and air, and space launches are part of that."


Soon after Wednesday's launch, Xinhua quoted an unidentified spokesman of the military-run space program as saying China was not interested in a space race and that the probe's mission was "without any military aims and carrying no military facilities and equipment."


However, Vincent Sabathier, director of space initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China's probe poses a military concern.


"You cannot make the distinction between civil space and military space," he said, adding that civil space involves projects done in the open. "The more you show the capability in civil space, the more you tell the potential adversaries you have the same thing on the military side. That you are mighty."


Henry R. Hertzfeld, research professor at the Space Policy Institute and Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University, said he hopes China and Japan will follow the U.S. example in sharing scientific findings.


In comments carried by Xinhua, Luan Enjie, commander of the lunar orbiter project, said, "China will, in the principle of pursuing a policy of peaceful use of airspace, share the achievements of the lunar exploration with the whole world."


At the Xichang site, several thousand people living within 1 1/2 miles of the launch center and under the rocket's trajectory were evacuated two hours before the launch, Xinhua said.


It said tourists paid $106 to watch the launch of the Long March, which was emblazoned with a drawing of the moon in eclipse that was also designed to look like a dragon. "China Lunar Probe" was written in Chinese on its side.


"Before long, human beings may live or tour space. Anything can happen," said Tony Zhang, who watched the launch on a big-screen television at a shopping mall in the heart of Beijing.


The project's goal is to analyze the chemical and mineral composition of the lunar surface. The probe will use stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the surface and study the moon's dust.


The 5,070-pound satellite is expected to transmit its first photo back to China in late November, and to conduct explorations of the moon for a year.


China sent its first satellite into Earth orbit in the 1970s but the space program only seriously took off in the 1980s, growing apace with the booming economy.


In 2003, China became only the third country in the world after the United States and Russia to put its own astronauts into space.


But China also alarmed the international community in January when it blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile. It was the first such test ever conducted by any nation.



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