Beijing – China is to use its Chang’e-2 lunar mission mainly to prepare for the nation’s first moon landing on the next mission scheduled to be launched by the end of 2013, officials have said.
Following the successful Chang’e-1 satellite mission from October 2007 to March 2009, the second lunar probe will test landing technology to be used on Chang’e-3 and take high-resolution photographs of the planned landing area.
Chang’e-3 is to feature a first lunar rover designed to be followed in around 2017 by another rover capable of returning to Earth with mineral samples.
‘It is estimated that Chang’e-2 can reach lunar orbit within five days,’ eight days faster than the previous probe, Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist at the China Lunar Exploration Project, told state media earlier this week.
It should achieve a minimum distance of 15 kilometres from the moon’s surface on its elliptical orbit, allowing it to take detailed images of potential landing areas for the next mission, Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the programme, told China Central Television.
‘Photos taken 15 kilometres from the moon’s surface can be very clear with a resolution of 1 metre,’ Wu said.
Once the mapping of the landing area is completed, Chang’e-2 is scheduled to move into a higher orbit of about 100 kilometres to continue studying the moon’s surface and soil.
In 2003, China became the third country to launch an astronaut into space after Russia and the United States.
It revealed plans in 2000 for a 20-year programme to build an integrated ground-space network for space exploration and manned space research, including a permanent space laboratory by 2020.
On completion in 2013, a fourth space centre on the southern island of Hainan plans to launch China’s next generation of Long March-5 rockets designed to carry 25-ton payloads, including multiple launches of commercial satellites, large space stations and deep-space probe satellites.
There are no current plans for a manned moon landing but in June at the Global Lunar Conference in Beijing, Yu Dengyun, the deputy chief designer of the Chang’e programme, said Chinese scientists had started research on sending people to the moon.
As part of its long-term plans for deep-space exploration, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp was also researching a Mars probe and the building of a lunar base, the official China Daily newspaper quoted Yu as saying.
In an interview with the newspaper last year, Ouyang also said China had ‘no specific schedule for a manned moon landing’, despite much speculation by Chinese and foreign scientists that it was on track to land an astronaut on the moon within one or two decades.
The importance of the lunar exploration programme, which is named after a mythical goddess who flew to the moon, was underlined by Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the Beijing mission control centre to see the first photographs sent from Chang’e-1 in November 2007.
‘Though China’s moon exploration project began much later than other countries, it is at the cutting edge in several aspects and is unique in many ways without excessive expenditure,’ Ouyang said.
He said Chang’e-1 had achieved scientific targets linked to the four main goals of the lunar programme.
It brought back data from nine million points on the lunar surface to enable the formulation of two-dimensional and three-dimensional maps of the entire surface.
Chang’e-1 also recorded chemical and mineral data for scientists to create a geological map of the moon, Ouyang said.
‘The third mission is to explore the soil layer on the moon, a pioneering work that has not been done by any other country. The Chang’e-1, using microwave technology, measured the depth of the soil layer across the moon,’ he said.
Its fourth task was to measure lunar environmental factors such as electromagnetism and solar wind, ‘which are crucial for future landings.’
Ouyang said one focus of the soil analysis would be the level of helium-3, an isotope that could be used in nuclear fusion in future decades.
Scientists have studied the potential of helium-3 for use in nuclear fusion since the 1950s, but the Earth contains only an estimated 15 tons, making the mineral a ‘holy grail’ of lunar exploration.
‘There is an abundance of helium-3, perhaps millions of tons on the moon, which could be used to generate energy once the technology matures,’ Ouyang told China Daily.
‘The moon might fundamentally change the pattern of energy generation for humans,’ he said.