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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Beijing's rocketing ambition
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

China's former leader Mao Zedong once quipped that his country could not launch a potato into space - but times have changed.

Chinese rocket taking off in Xichang
Despite a ban on US components, China's space industry is advanced

The launch of China's Moon probe Chang'e I is the latest in a series of achievements attained by the country's space programme recently.

Chang'e I's launch is the first stage of a lunar exploration project that could see China put a man on the Moon within 15 years.

But critics, particular those in the United States, worry China's space programme also has a threatening, military aspect.

Those fears were voiced in August by Lt-Gen Kevin Campbell, head of the US army's Space and Missile Defence Command.

He warned that China might be just three years away from being able to disrupt US military satellites in a regional conflict.

China often repeats that it does not want to initiate an arms race in space.

But its ability to turn space into a battlefield was demonstrated in January when a ground-launched missile successfully destroyed a defunct weather satellite.

Military expert Andrew Yang, of the Taiwan-based China Council for Advanced Policy Studies, says China is building up its military capabilities in space.

"The space programme is run by China's defence industry so the military is heavily involved," he explains.

Mars springboard?

Despite a ban on high-tech components from the US, China certainly has the ability to compete with space programmes run by other countries.

"In some areas they are even more advanced that we are," admits Bruno Gardini, exploration programme manager at the European Space Agency.

"They have the ability to put a person into low-Earth orbit," he says. "We don't."

This probe will help the exploration of the universe
Rene Oosterlinct
European Space Agency

The Chang'e I, launched from Xichang in Sichuan Province, is expected to orbit the Moon for a year, sending its first pictures back to Earth in November.

It will take 3D images and analyse the distribution of elements on the surface, according to China's state-run Xinhua News Agency.

It is the first of a three-stage programme that will see China orbit the Moon, land on it and then bring back samples from the surface.

The information collected by China is not for abstract scientific research - it could be put to practical use in future space missions.

Although the US put a man on the Moon as far back as 1969, it wants to go back.

Japan, India, Russia and the Europeans, as well as the Chinese, want to go too.

To do that, much more information about the Moon is needed about, for example, soil types, landing sites and changes in gravity.

In the future, the Moon could also be a launch-pad for exploration further afield, says Rene Oosterlinct, a European Space Agency official who attended the launch of Chang'e I.

"This probe will help the exploration of the universe and, if we one day want to go to Mars, the Moon could be the first step," he said.

Money worries

But the Chang'e I project is more than just a mission to gather information or to develop military capabilities - it is also about prestige.

China is extremely proud of its space programme. Its first astronaut in space, Yang Liwei, was a delegate at the recent congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Two more Chinese astronauts followed Mr Yang's achievement in 2005 when they spent five days in space.

China pursues its space project despite the fact it is still a developing country.

Its per capita gross domestic product last year was just $2,010 (1,000) compared with $44,970 in the US, according to the World Bank.

China remains tight-lipped about its space budget, although an official revealed that the Moon project had cost more than one billion yuan ($134 million, 65 million) by the end of last year.

But money here does not seem to be the main concern.

"For Chinese leaders, technology is very important," says Mr Oosterlinct. "They want to show the world and their own people that China, in the field of technology, is the equal of any other country."

SEE ALSO
China launches first Moon orbiter
24 Oct 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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