China and the Pull of the Moon

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At the shaved noodle shop tonight, China’s latest space launch barely got a notice. As the guy next to me tested every possible ring tone option on his phone, the waitress flipped through the tv channels. First it was a talent contest, and then, for a few seconds, a digital recreation of a satellite orbiting the moon. Then it was onto the usual fare, a World War II-period drama. I don’t think it’s that people aren’t deeply proud of the space program, but that it’s becoming almost routine. In 2003 China put a man into space, becoming only the third nation after the USSR and the US to do so. Then in 2005 it put two astronauts into orbit.

So Wednesday’s feat, launching a satellite that is expected to begin orbiting the moon some time early next month, might seem dull by comparison. But it is impressive in its own right. “In the past China has launched some 70 satellites, but they are all earth-orbiting,” says Sun Kwok, an astronomer at the University of Hong Kong. “This one has the technological challenge of going beyond earth orbit to go into lunar orbit. It is much more difficult.” Kwok is part of a team of 120 Chinese scientists who will examine the data that will be transmitted back from the satellite for up to a year. The orbiter, named Chang’e 1 for a goddess from Chinese folklore who flew to the moon, will map the surface of the moon, analyze the composition of its surface and take readings on solar wind.

The satellite will also help China’s space program prepare for further moon exploration. It plans to launch a probe of the moon’s surface by 2012, then send up a vehicle that will land and return, and finally put a man on the moon by 2020. It will have some competition. Japan, which launched its own lunar orbiter last month, hopes to land astronauts on the moon by 2025. And the U.S., which first landed two men on the moon in 1969, also has plans to go back, though the head of NASA has already raised concerns about being beaten by China in the race to return. Once that competition heats up, you can imagine people will be glued to the television.