Scientists break into tears of joy over quality of lunar images

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2007, 12:00am

Kou Wen , a senior engineer at the Beijing Planetarium and a keen amateur astronomer, said the first thing he did yesterday morning was take out his best lunar shots and compare them with the first image obtained by Chang'e I, China's lunar probe.

'The quality is much better than what we can obtain on Earth,' Mr Kou said. 'I have seen nothing like it before through my telescope. It looks great.'

Mr Kou's response was shared by some scientists who, according to China National Space Administration chief Sun Laiyan , 'broke into tears when they saw we had obtained such a clear image'.

'The image is much better than we expected,' Mr Sun said.

A direct comparison between the lunar shots taken by Chang'e I and Kaguya, the Japanese moon orbiter, was impossible at the moment because the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) had not released any close-up photos of the moon surface, according to Zou Yongliao , deputy commander of the mainland's Ground Application System.

Professor Zou said China's lunar probe was further away from the moon and the resolution of its camera was not very high.

'Our scientific goals focus more on the macro, a complete survey of the moon, rather than a detailed study of a region,' he said. 'The image signals we are there. It has more of a public relations function than scientific value.'

Nonetheless, careful study of the image has taught mainland scientists something they did not know.

'In the lower part of the image we suspect most of the surface structure is made of plagioclase [feldspar minerals].

'And we are quite sure that the upper part of it, where the colour went darker, is basalt [a common volcanic rock],' Professor Zou said.

The onboard CCD camera has collected enough data for 3D imaging, but to meet the government deadline of releasing the first image, scientists managed to merge only 19 shots with two dimensions, he said.

'[The government] simply wanted us to dress up ... we have been working 11 to 18 hours a day, mostly during the night.'

Although the leadership has hailed the first stage of China's lunar exploration a complete success, Professor Zou said the actual scientific research had just begun.

Researchers still needed to construct a 3D image of the entire lunar surface and analyse the distribution of some elements and the thickness of the lunar crust.

'From now on, thousands of experts of multiple disciplines around the nation will join this expedition and try to discover what has been scientifically unknown,' he said.

Beijing Normal University astronomical physics expert He Xiangtao is one of those ready to exploit the data sent back by the probe, but he is cautious about the possibility of a significant scientific discovery.

'[Chang'e] will bring a great deal of people and resources into lunar research but I seriously doubt we can make any groundbreaking findings,' he said.

'That is why it had been delayed for years because many thought its scientific goals were not clear. But our country has more strength and money than ever. It is time to make the moon our destiny.

'The government is willing to spend a huge sum of money on phases two and three [of the lunar programme] because they are so elated by the easy success of phase one.'

A message to the moon

Milestones in the lunar programme

Nov 2000: State Council white paper makes first known reference to China's plans for lunar exploration

Oct 24, 2007: Long March rocket carrying Chang'e probe launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan

Oct 26: probe sets record for Chinese spacecraft by orbiting 71,000km above Earth

Oct 29: Chang'e reaches orbit of more than 120,000km above Earth

Oct 31: orbit at 380,000km when main rocket fired for fourth time, sending probe towards moon

Nov 5: brakes applied to probe, enabling it to change course and become first mainland satellite to orbit moon

Nov 7: probe completes 1.8m-km, two-week voyage across space to fall into working orbit

Nov 19: observation equipment and sensors activated after lunar orbit adjusted

Yesterday: first Chinese pictures of moon released