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Last Updated: Friday, 11 August 2006, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
UK seeks role in Moon missions
Chinese astronaut Nie Haisheng shoots with a video camera in Shenzhou-6 spacecraft  - 13/10/05
Chinese astronaut Nie Haisheng
UK scientists are vying to play a key role in China's plans to explore the Moon with robotic spacecraft.

British space scientists visited the country earlier this year to discuss building scientific instruments for the second phase of China's lunar missions.

China has become only the third country to successfully put a man into space, after Russia and the US.

It hopes to set up a space station within five years and eventually it wants to put an astronaut on the Moon.

John Zarnecki, Professor of Space Science at the Open University in Milton Keynes, is one of a team of academics, agency officials and space scientists that visited China earlier this year.

I think they are looking for significant collaboration
Prof John Zarnecki

"The Chinese have put people in space themselves, they've got fantastic capability but in some ways they are newcomers," he told the BBC News website.

"And certainly on the space science side they are really looking to get together with us; we are very good at doing scientific instruments and we'd love the opportunities to do that sort of thing."

National pride

Beijing has attached great importance to its space ventures, viewing them as a source of national pride and international prestige.

Cheng'e programme
Named after the Chinese Moon goddess
Involves four phases
Phase 1: Probe to orbit the Moon
Phase 2: Land instruments to examine the surface
Phase 3: Collect samples for return to Earth using a rover
Phase 4: Land astronauts on the Moon

Its space programme has grown enormously since it was set up in 1992, and now employs tens of thousands of people.

But China lacks expertise in a number of areas, including space science, and is keen to collaborate with Europe and other interested parties.

"I think they are looking for significant collaboration," said Prof Zarnecki.

"They have got good technology themselves but they will admit that they are fairly new in space science; so they don't have all of the instrument capabilities and so on."

China's first unmanned lunar mission, called Cheng'e1, a lunar orbiter, is due to launch next year.

"If that's successful, their next one (Cheng'e2), which is really ambitious, involves a soft lander, possibly with a rover," said Zarnecki.

"There've already been discussions about the UK getting together with China to provide some of those instruments.

"Those are the sort of things that we are beginning to talk about."

Technology transfer

China has already forged links with the European Space Agency (Esa) on a number of space projects, including the Galileo satellite-navigation network of satellites and earth observation programmes.

Stephen Briggs, head of Esa's Earth observation applications, said China is keen to expand its role but technology transfer is a sensitive issue.

"We are careful about becoming involved with them in the right way, in the right structures, for technology programmes," he said.

"But on the applications of the science side, we are very keen to collaborate because they have a lot to offer."

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