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China, India Set Sights on the Moon

30 November 2004 (All day)
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Moonstruck. Wu Ji leads China's team building a 2007 lunar orbiter.

UDAIPUR, INDIA--The new kids on the space block are having their own race to the moon. Last week, Chinese scientists presented details of the country's planned lunar orbiter mission, named Chang'e, to be launched sometime in 2007. Not to be outdone, Indian space officials revealed at the same time that they have added a probe to the suite of instruments aboard Chandrayaan-1, which is headed to the moon the same year.

Both countries unveiled their plans here at the International Conference on Exploration and Utilization of the Moon. "It has all the makings of a new race," says German high-energy physicist Horst Uwe Keller of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, which hopes to build a payload for the Indian spacecraft. "And that's good. Healthy competition has never killed anybody."

The Chinese mission, the country's first outside Earth's orbit, hopes to put a 2-ton satellite into a 200-kilometer, circular polar orbit for a year's worth of exploration. Its 150-kg scientific payload will include a camera to map the terrain of the moon in stereo for the first time. It will also carry a gamma and x-ray spectrometer to study its elemental and mineral composition, as well as instruments to measure solar winds and spot high-energy particles from deep space. The Chang'e mission will also carry a microwave radiometer to analyze the density, depth, and composition of the lunar soil, the first time such an instrument has been trained on the moon.

There are no international partners on the Chang'e mission, which the Chinese government approved last year on an accelerated timetable. "We are in a real hurry and don't have time to get any foreign payloads," says Wu Ji, executive director of the Center for Space Science and Applied Research in Beijing. China hopes to send a lander and a rover to the moon in 2012, adds Wu, who emphasized that there are no plans to place humans there. "It is out of the question," he says.

India has no plans for a human mission either, Madhavan Nair, chair of the Indian Space Research Organization in Bangalore, told ScienceNOW. But it is expanding its robotic observations. Nair announced that Chandrayaan-1 will now include a 30-kg probe to penetrate the lunar surface. He called the probe a necessary step in preparing for a proposed soft landing and lunar rover mission by 2015. "We do not want to lag behind," he says.

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