By bowing to a long-standing tradition of carrying out key scientific missions to celebrate the conclusion of major political events, China had to step back and let Japan take the lead in the region's undeclared space race. Last month, Japan became the first Asian country to blast its way to the moon, launching the three-ton probe Kaguya, named after a moon princess from a fairytale.
Chinese netizens have deplored the delay of Chinese launch, describing it as a falling behind in a regional competition that here is colored in nationalistic overtones. The choice of name for the Chinese lunar probe -- Chang'e -- after a moon goddess, has given rise to numerous fictitious scenarios on the web about potential encounters between the two moon probes.
"Kaguya stole a march on Chang'e in shooting off first but we shall see who reaches there first," said one post on an Internet bulletin board.
Chinese space officials though, have been careful to avoid any suggestion of space rivalry.
"Japan began its lunar exploration research much earlier than we did, so we have always stressed that with the launch of Chang'e, we don't want to be talking about who is first," Zhang Jianqi, head of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, told the state media.
The scientific objectives of both missions are quite similar and the time-frames of both programs are almost identical. Both probes would explore the moon for a year, mapping it and transmitting geo-chemical data back to earth. Both China and Japan plan to land manned spacecrafts on the moon by 2025.
Japan and China are just a step ahead of India, which plans to launch its own lunar probe, Chandrayaan-1 next year, when the United States will also send off its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The new outburst in lunar exploration comes after a hiatus of more than 30 years since the Apollo program of the U.S. in the 1970s.
Refuting suggestions that China is merely replicating the feats of other space-faring nations before, Chinese experts say the most important driver behind the lunar probe is the moon's wealth of natural resources, particularly its rich supplies of helium-3, a source of fusion energy rarely found on Earth.
"It is true that China is part of the second big wave to explore the moon," says He Weiliang, professor with Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Ô'but being a member of this club is not just a testimony of our space progress. It is also our scientific duty."
The doyen of China's moon program, renowned geologist Ouyang Ziyuan has been more forthright about the broader political background to the country's space ambitions. "The lunar expedition will increase China's political influence in the world," he said in a statement posted on the Chinese Academy of Science's website.
China has been accused of being highly secretive about its space program, which after years of setbacks in most recent time has taken huge strides forward, in line with the country's spectacular economic rise.
China is only the third country to have sent astronauts into orbit using its own rockets. And earlier this year Beijing alarmed the U.S. and other Asian countries by shooting down one of its ageing weather satellites and displaying unsuspected sophistication of antimissile technology.
Since then though, the country has faced rising concerns about its intentions in space and questions about its commitment to keep the space weapons free. By giving unprecedented publicity and information on the launch of the lunar probe, Beijing has tried to relay a message that it is a peaceful player in the space exploration game.
"China will not be involved in a moon race with any other country," Luan Enjie, chief commander of the lunar orbiter project, told the state news agency Xinhua, stressing that Beijing would adhere to a "policy of peaceful use of space."
The U.S. continues to be suspicious of China's space program and has so far rejected Beijing Ôs efforts to join the International Space Station. But experts say isolating China from the world's space club could only foster an even more ambitious desire for the country to do it all alone.
Accidentally or by virtue of careful planning, the launch of the Chang'e 1 probe took place just hours after the U.S. space shuttle Discovery's liftoff for the International Space Station.
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Albion Monitor October
26, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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