Ouyang Ziyuan, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), was one of the elite Chinese scientists blessed with the chance to see a bit of the moon on the laboratory table about two decades ago.
In 1978, shortly before the People's Republic of China and the United States established formal diplomatic relations, visiting U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski presented the Chinese Government with a goodwill gift: a 1-gram piece of lunar rock. Half of the precious specimen was preserved and later exhibited to the public at Beijing Planetarium while the other half, about the size of a fingernail, went under the microscopes of over 100 Chinese geologists and chemists.
As an organizer of the initial research, Ouyang is proud of the results. "We did exhaustive research on the rock and conducted all the tests we could at that time," he said. "We concluded that the rock sample was from the last Apollo mission to the moon, Apollo-17. We even located the origin of the rock on the moon and deduced sophisticated data on the rock's chemical composition and evolution." The experience of examining the bit of lunar material has proved that China had mastered advanced analyzing and researching capacity on extraterrestrial rocks, he said. Subsequent research also earned recognition from American scientists.
Yet Ouyang's only disappointment lay in the fact that the tiny piece of rock was not first-hand material, but a gift. He has long hoped for the day that a spacecraft from China can fetch rock samples from the moon for the country's scientists to study.
Throughout the 1960s, when trips to the moon were moved out of the realm of science fiction and into reality by space missions launched by the Soviet Union and the United States, CAS geologists like Ouyang, who specialized in comparative evolution studies between the Earth and other celestial bodies, had to study available aeroliths and collect material from other countries' space trips in order to conduct their studies.
The dream of having material brought back to the Earth by Chinese astronauts, for Ouyang, who is the chief scientist of China's lunar orbiter project, might not be far away. After the successful launch of China's first unmanned lunar probe Chang'e-1 on October 24, Ouyang claimed that a Chinese lunar rover could land on the moon and bring back samples as early as 2017 if the lunar exploration Chang'e Project goes as planned.
The announcement of China's moon mission, or the Chang'e Project - named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon - was first released to the public in 2003. As the first step of the moon mission, the circumlunar satellite Chang'e-1 will orbit the moon for a year to test technology for future missions and to study the lunar environment and surface rock.
The second phase is the soft landing of a lunar rover on the moon's surface, scheduled for some time between 2013 and 2017. The third phase is to send a lunar rover to the moon, which will return to the Earth after exploring and collecting lunar samples between 2017 and 2020.
For peace and sharing
When Japan launched its first lunar probe Kaguya in mid-September, Chinese space experts were invited to observe the launch at the launch site. When Chang'e-1 blasted off from a Long March 3A carrier at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwestern Sichuan Province, Chinese space experts, technicians and other staff were joined by experts from Japan, Germany and other countries.
"China welcomes international cooperation in space activities," said Vice Minister of Science and Technology Li Xueyong, adding that China hopes to become the 17th nation to join the International Space Station Project.
The International Space Station is a joint project of 16 nations including the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and 11 countries from the European Space Agency.
"China sincerely wants to cooperate with the United States in space exploration and join the International Space Station Project," said Li.
"Chang'e-1 only conducts scientific missions, without military aims and it carries no military facilities or equipment," said a spokesman of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense on the launch day.
According to a Xinhua report, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has announced that data collected by this lunar mission will be publicized to the world in order to share its findings with scientists from other countries. China will not embark on any lunar-probing competition "in any form with any country," said Luan Enjie, Chief Commander of the project. He said the initiation of China's lunar exploration schedule was not spurred by the recent wave of moon exploration movements in other countries.