China on the Moon
Chang'e-3 completes the first successful soft-landing on an extraterrestrial body in 37 years
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UPDATED: November 5, 2007 NO. 45 NOVEMBER 8, 2007
Studying the Moon
The launch of China's first unmanned lunar probe will boost the nation's technological capabilities in space sciences and other areas

"Since China has accumulated enough knowledge in space technology and economic strength, it is natural to make the decision to stride toward deep space exploration," said Luan.

New wave of lunar exploration

Man's first period of lunar exploration, lasting almost two decades throughout the 1960s to mid-1970s at the height of the Cold War, was triggered by a space race between the two superpowers. Between 1959 and 1976, the Soviet Union and the United States launched 108 probes related to lunar exploration. The competition for engineering supremacy between the two countries, culminating at the landing of the first man on the moon in 1969, eventually diminished after every exploration means available at that time had been used. As for the United States, one reason it has stated for giving up another manned mission was that it would take a long time for geologists and chemists to digest all the data from the 381.3-kg lunar rock samples it gathered on the six Apollo Program landings.

Commenting on the first "golden age" of lunar exploration, Luan said that although the United States and the Soviet Union had made achievements in lunar exploration, mankind still knew little about the moon and many fields remain to be explored.

Chinese scientists started systematic and comprehensive analysis and research about lunar science as early as the mid-1960s. In the 1990s, they began a feasibility study on lunar exploration. A government white paper on space technology released in 2000 disclosed China's ambitions regarding moon exploration for the first time.

During the time China began to conduct moon exploration studies, there was very little activity surrounding lunar exploration around the world. No other countries had announced plans for new lunar missions. "Our decision-making process was carried out without exterior influences," Luan said.

However, the announcement of China's Chang'e plan, which took shape in 2003, was quickly followed by a flurry of activities from other countries. In January 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush revealed a new space program which included returning to the moon by 2020, "with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods." This new plan seemed to have resurrected scientific enthusiasm about the moon in a handful of countries, including Japan, India, Russia, Britain and Germany, who soon followed suit by announcing their own moon exploration plans.

Talking about the difference between the first wave of lunar exploration and the new movement, Ouyang said that not only had the number of players increased from two to nearly 10, the major driving force was not military or political supremacy, but resources on the moon.

Ouyang said that despite the regulations in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and the Moon Treaty of 1984 claiming that no one person, government, company, or corporation could own the moon, or any other celestial bodies, space exploration practices over the last few decades have proved that only countries with advanced spacecraft and rocket carriers can really take advantage of outer space.

"Against the worsening problems of environmental pollution, energy crisis, climate change, and the explosive growth of the human population, the value of the moon seems even more precious," he said. "Only countries that have mastered lunar exploration have the initiative in the prospective development on the moon."

Ouyang said it would have been too late for China to start its own lunar exploration plan when other countries had found effective means of using resources on the moon. "We have missed the first round of lunar exploration, but we won't be far behind during the second round," he said.

What China can get

China's lunar orbiter project has cost 1.4 billion yuan (about $180 million) since the research and development were approved at the beginning of 2004. Luan said this heaven-related project is far from being "heavenly expensive" since 1.4 billion yuan could only build a 14-km section of highway or less than 3 km of subway line.

Ouyang said the annual expense of 400 million yuan is quite affordable since the country's annual gross domestic product surpasses 20 trillion yuan.

Luan added that although it is still too early to talk about the direct benefits of the lunar exploration project, the impetus it has added to the country's space sciences, including the development and research of carrier rockets, is quite obvious. Chinese scientists have been invited as guest speakers at international academic conferences. Last year, the International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon was held in China for the first time.

Ye Peijian, Chief Commander and designer in charge of the satellite system, said China's lunar exploration project can function like the Apollo Program did for the U.S. The project will greatly promote development in basic sciences and application technologies, such as telecommunications, artificial intelligence, automation and nuclear power. He said breakthroughs in these fields would trigger breakthroughs in a larger number of basic sciences.

Among the four scientific objectives of Chang'e-1, three are original programs. Chang'e-1 will obtain the first three-dimensional imaging of the lunar surface. Among the 14 useful elements and materials below the lunar surface whose distribution will be tested and collected, the distribution of nine elements has never been publicized before. In probing the features of lunar soil, the probe will attempt to detect the content of helium 3, which has potential as a perfect energy source-potent, nonpolluting, and with virtually no radioactive by-product. This study has also never appeared in any other country's open lunar exploration projects.

The fourth task for Chang'e-1 is to explore the relationship between the Earth and the moon. Liu Dengrui, a spaceflight historian, said the data from the exploration will provide spacecraft engineers with references for the assembly of Shenzhou-7, China's third manned space mission planned for next year, during which Chinese astronauts will for the first time work beyond the confines of the spacecraft modules. China carried out its first manned space mission Shenzhou-5 in October 2003, making it the third country in the world after the Soviet Union and the United States to have sent men into space.

However, Luan, who is also the administrator of the CNSA, said the government would not get carried away with excessive enthusiasm in lunar or space exploration. He said issues of scientific research should always be dealt with pragmatically. "Whether it is the moon or Mars, our spacecraft would only be sent there if our scientists really need the material for their studies," he said.

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