Chang'e in moon orbit triumph

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am

China's lunar probe completed a 1.8-million-kilometre, two-week voyage across space yesterday to fall into its working orbit around the moon.

The Chang'e I satellite moved into position 200km above the moon's surface at 8.35am after completing the last of a series of braking and accelerating manoeuvres. Experts said the success of the journey would give much-needed confidence to mission scientists and bolster the reputation of China's ambitious and rapidly growing space programme.

The probe was scheduled to beam back its first lunar photographs at the end of this month, but it is likely the images will arrive earlier because the mission has been smoother than expected.

'We have had a perfect flight,' Beijing Aerospace Control Centre orbit design expert Li Gefei said.

Dr Li said the mission went so well that there was enough fuel saved for the satellite to stay in lunar orbit for three years - three times longer than its designed life span.

The outcome exceeded the expectations of many mainland space scientists, given that the global success rate for lunar missions since the 1960s has been less than 50 per cent.

The centre's deputy chief engineer, Zhou Jianliang, said scientists had envisaged 84 kinds of equipment failures and come up with nearly 150 procedures to remedy the potential breakdowns.

Even for the last manoeuvre, a comparatively easy and minor step, the team had prepared about a dozen contingency plans in case of engine failure. 'In the end, more than 3 million hours of work turned out to be totally useless,' he said. 'That's the highest reward.'

Dr Zhou said the quality of the spacecraft's control and orbit design, accomplished entirely by Chinese scientists, matched that of any US or Russian mission. 'It gives us the confidence we need for phases two and three of the project, and other ongoing programmes,' he said.

Greater self-assurance is only one of the breakthroughs Chang'e has delivered in the past two weeks, according to China National Space Administration spokesman Li Guoping .

Participants also gained precious experience in Earth-to-moon orbit design, remote communications, spacecraft guidance and control systems, and tested the reliability of the satellite and the launch vehicle, Mr Li said.