Chang'e II satellite's mission brings the moon a step closer
China took another step on its long march to the moon yesterday, launching its second lunar satellite from the space centre in Xichang , Sichuan .
Bang on schedule at 7pm, the new generation Long March 3C rocket shot skywards after ignition. The launch was broadcast live on state television and over the internet.
The rocket disappeared from the mountainous launch site's view moments later as it punched its way through thick cloud cover.
Computer-generated animation displayed the spacecraft's progress on a large screen at the mission control centre in Beijing, as it discarded its external boosters followed by the rocket's three main sections and left the atmosphere to enter earth-moon transfer orbit just under 30 minutes later.
State media declared the first phase of the launch a success as the Chang'e II probe began its 112-hour journey to lunar orbit.
The mission is crucial to the development of the mainland's lunar programme and will lay the groundwork for an unmanned rover landing in three years.
The probe is a twin of the country's first lunar probe, Chang'e I, which was launched on October 24, 2007. That project was such a success that its twin was left sitting on the bench for more than a year. It even faced being broken up for parts until space scientists came up with a more constructive suggestion - an upgrade for a new mission.
The probe's main goal is to find a favourable spot for the mainland's lunar base. The base already has a name - Guang Han Gong (Giant Cold Mansion) - but it has five possible locations. A state-of-the-art camera mounted on the upgraded probe will settle the debate. Capable of picking out objects with a diameter of just 1.5 metres - in 3D - the camera will be able to gather a great deal more topographical information than the last flight.
The probe will also dispatch a smaller and less sophisticated camera, equipped with a shock-absorbing mechanism, to the lunar surface for a soft-landing trial designed to pave the way for more ambitious future missions.
To the layman's eyes, however, the biggest and most impressive development involves the rocket, not the satellite.
Peking University space scientist Professor Jiao Weixin said: 'If Chang'e I ran as fast as a wagon, Chang'e II is a Ferrari.'
The journey from the Earth to the Moon will be reduced from two weeks to just five days.
The improvements are not limited to speed. With improved algorithms and faster computers, the new lunar probe will also be able to turn more sharply and brake more effectively when in reaches the moon, Jiao said.
The new probe will face the same fate as its predecessor when its mission is over - a head-on crash into the moon.
That will change with the launch of Chang'e III - scheduled to happen in three years' time.
Chang'e III will be launched by one of China's new heavy lift rockets from a brand new space centre in Wenchang , Hainan , and will carry a moon rover and a telescope.
The telescope has attracted international attention because it will be the only lunar-based telescope and could lead to new astronomical discoveries.