China could send its first unmanned probe to the moon within the next two and a half years, a leading scientific official has revealed.
The Chang'e Programme, which is awaiting government approval, is named after the Chinese legend about a young fairy who flies to the moon.
"We will be able to embark on a maiden unmanned mission within two and a half years if the government endorses the scheme now," Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's lunar exploration programme, said in Beijing on Saturday.
Ouyang, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the nation's top institution of its kind, said China should not drag its feet in sending the lunar probe, given the Earth's nearest neighbour probably holds the key to humanity's future subsistence and development.
Another indication of the importance China attaches to lunar exploration was given in remarks made by Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration, at a national civil aerospace working conference held over the weekend.
He announced China will finish the first phase of the Chang'e Programme by 2010.
After years of painstaking feasibility studies, Chinese scientists have worked out a lunar probe programme, which consists of three stages, including orbiting, landing and returning from the moon with lunar soil and rock samples, according to Luan.
The first phase of the project will see China send a lunar orbiter spacecraft to circle the moon and map its surface to get three-dimensional images of it.
This part of mission will also deal with analyzing the content and distribution of useful elements on the moon surface, measure the density of lunar soil and exploring the lunar space environment, according to Luan.
The subsequent two phases of the Chang'e Programme will involve wheeled robotic explorers, which roll on the moon and collect lunar soil for research, he said.
The announcement of the Chang'e Programme took place days before the country's political advisers and the National People's Congress deputies meet in Beijing this week, helping it attract legislators' attention.
Luan did not mention a timetable for a manned lunar landing. Ouyang said a piloted mission to the moon is not currently a goal for China, although, ultimately, the country will send people to the Earth's natural satellite.
Lunar exploration by China was first mooted in a State Council White Paper issued in November 2000.
Sun Jiadong, a senior space expert in Beijing, said China is technically ready for an unmanned lunar probe, since the country has been developing its technology, expertise and management experience in the past decades of space activities.
Sun revealed that China will use its tried and tested Long March III-A rocket to send a lunar explorer satellite, which is based on the Dongfanghong III communications satellite.
The launch will take place at the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, he said.
Both Sun and Ouyang said the Chang'e Programme also requires the development of some key technologies, especially with regard to tracking and controlling lunar orbiters in orbit around the moon or lunar landing craft on the moon.
The former Soviet Union launched Luna 10, the world's first spacecraft into lunar orbit on April 4, 1966, a few months before the US launched Lunar Orbiter 1.
China launched its lunar exploration programme belatedly, but it is starting from a good position, and can contribute more to the lunar probe by relying on its own technology and innovations, Ouyang said.
(China Daily March 3, 2003)