China successfully put a controversial Turkish spy satellite into orbit yesterday, capping off an intense, failure-free year for the Chinese space programme that also saw its first manual space docking.
The Gokturk-2 - Turkey's second domestically produced observation satellite - was carried by a Long March 2D rocket launched after midnight from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert.
The successful mission was described as being "a historic moment" by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had previously dismissed concerns the satellite would be used to observe Israel and undercut a US-backed blackout on high-resolution space photography of Israeli territory.
Erdogan watched the launch live from giant screens along with hundreds of Turks in Ankara, according to Agence France-Presse.
The US$200 million probe, partly financed by the Turkish Ministry of Defence, contains a South Korean-made camera that can reportedly identify ground objects as small as one square metre. It was the first produced by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey and Turkish Aerospace Industry.
Turkish Aerospace said that the probe would bolster the imaging capabilities of the Turkish Armed Forces in addition to its civilian applications.
The Gokturk was the fifth foreign satellite launched by China this year. The others included a remote-sensing probe for Venezuela, a small marine satellite for Luxemburg and two telecommunications probes for a Hong Kong company.
Due to a US embargo, China was limited to launching satellites made without American equipment or US-patented technology. China has worked closely with Europe and some developing countries in recent years to sidestep the US policy and develop their own satellites.
The launch marked the end of a year during which the government launched 19 Long March rockets and sent up 28 satellites and spacecraft. All the missions were successful, Xinhua said.
The US, in comparison, had 14 scheduled launches this year, of which two were postponed.
While many country's space budgets have shrunk since the global economic crisis, China's investment has continued to show consistent growth. With an enormous space centre in Wenchang, Hainan province, nearing completion, the country hopes to soon have a launch capacity to compete with the US and Russia.
China also sent its first crew - including its first female astronaut - to its Tiangong-1 space station in June, demonstrating the skills and technology it will need if it is to meet its goal of completing a space station by 2020.
But mainland space experts say the US export ban is continuing to hold back the pace of China's expansion into space.
"To most countries, it is extremely costly and troublesome to build a satellite without using any US parts or technology," said Professor Han Chao, a satellite expert with Beihang University. "And if they try it, the final cost will be extremely high. That's why China's share in the international launch market is so small."
Chinese researchers remain decades behind the US in some areas as space-related business and scientific research have been compromised by politics, he said. "Many businesses in the US want to launch their satellites in China because the price is low and many scientists in Nasa want to visit China because we have the budget to do many things they want. All these wonderful things have been made impossible by some foolish politicians."