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Last Updated: Friday, 12 August 2005, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
China on track for moon mission
Image of the Moon, Nasa
The mission is christened Chang'e-1 after the Chinese Moon goddess
China is preparing to launch its first ever lunar orbiter in 2007, as part of its burgeoning space programme.

The spacecraft will pave the way for future missions, which may include China putting a lander on the Moon.

The expedition, christened Chang'e-1 after the Chinese Moon goddess, will map the moon in 3D in an effort to identify future landing sites.

Designs for the spacecraft have been completed and development will begin next month, officials say.

"The design of various plans which serve to meet different situations and simulation satellites has finished and all related professional experiments are ongoing," said the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation's Ye Peijian, chief designer of the satellite.

Gaining prestige

The satellite will also study the Moon's composition and radiation environment and may use radar to probe below its surface.

Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst at the think tank CNA Corporation in Alexandria, US, told New Scientist that a huge part of this mission is prestige.

"The Chinese have consistently tried to make sure their 'first' was bigger, better and more capable than anybody else's," he said.

After Chang'e-1's mission, some suggest China will send a lander to the Moon by 2010 and a robotic rover to sample the surface by 2020.

"After this lunar flight, China will carry out soft landing exploration and auto inspection missions on the moon, with the core part being the realization of landing probes on the moon surface and carrying out scientific exploration," Ye said.

However, Mr Cheng is sceptical about these dates. "The Chinese are generally reticent about putting out specific dates because it puts them in the position of potentially losing face," he said.

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