China has launched its first mission to the moon, firing a spacecraft toward a planned lunar orbit in a spectacular symbol of its rise to superpower status.
The successful launch yesterday is the first step in the country's ambitious drive to send astronauts to the moon, where it plans to harvest mineral resources and build a permanent base.
China's lunar exploration program has accelerated so fast that it could put a human on the moon by 2020. The head of the U.S. space agency has warned that China will probably get to the moon faster than the United States, which is aiming to return to the moon as part of a long-term mission to Mars.
The Chang'e 1 orbiter, named after a mythological Chinese goddess who flew to the moon with a white rabbit, blasted off yesterday on a Long March 3A rocket from a launch pad in Sichuan province in western China.
The launch, broadcast live on Chinese television, is being celebrated with massive coverage in the Chinese news media, which are portraying it as a political triumph for the Chinese Communist Party. The mission was apparently timed to begin just after the end of the party's 17th congress, its biggest meeting in five years.
Chinese officials proclaimed that the launch was a "complete success." The spaceship is expected to enter the moon's orbit on Nov. 5 and begin transmitting its first pictures of the moon by late November.
The satellite will orbit the moon for a year. It will take three-dimensional pictures of the moon's surface, allowing it to probe the moon's mineral resources and scout possible locations for a Chinese lunar base.
"It marks a great success and another step forward in China's lunar exploration program," Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan said in a speech to Chinese space technicians after the launch.
"Lunar exploration is an important part of building an innovative country. It's another milestone in China's mission to outer space, and it solidifies China's international status and international competitiveness in this field."
He appeared to confirm the political value of the launch, making several references to the Communist congress. The launch, he said, is "upholding the spirit of the 17th party congress."
Chinese state television showed the space launch on several of its main channels yesterday. One of its broadcasts was anchored from a set designed to resemble the surface of the moon. Its coverage was heavily patriotic, with animated images of Chinese flags and the Forbidden City surrounding the spaceship in some reports.
China is aiming to put a rover vehicle on the moon by 2012 and send back samples from the moon's surface by 2017. If its program stays on track, it aims to put a human on the moon by 2020, according to Chinese space scientists. So far China has spent the equivalent of $187-million on its lunar program.
But while the Chinese lunar mission is reaping a propaganda bonanza on the domestic front, it is sparking concerns from the international community. Donor countries such as Canada will face political pressure to cut back their development aid to China, since China is now wealthy enough to afford its own space program. And there are mounting anxieties over the military applications of the Chinese space program, which is controlled by the Chinese army.
This year, China destroyed a satellite with a guided missile, dramatically demonstrating its ability to threaten U.S. satellites in any future conflict.