Monday, November 26, 2007

First Moon Picture of China Back from China's Chang'e Probe

This file photo released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on Nov. 26, 2007 shows China's first picture of the moon captured by Chang'e-1, China's first lunar orbiter, marking the full success of its lunar probe project. (Xinhua Photo)

It's very clear that this is intended to be a (photographic) shot heard round the world. And well it should be.

China's first picture from the moon, returned by its Chang'e lunar probe, was unveiled by Premier Wen Jiabao in a morning ceremony today. Framed and blown up to the size of the officials on stage, the black-and-white, cratered photo was meant to show that the country is now one of the "select few powers that have the capabilities to engage in deep-space exploration," according to state news agency Xinhua.

The probe is packed with additional equipment, including a gamma and X-ray spectrometer, a laser altimeter, a microwave detector, a detector for high-energy solar particles, and more. But as the ceremony today shows, the probe's symbolic importance perhaps rivals its scientific value.

Already, an Asian space race is well in gear, with Japan's moon probe a few weeks ahead of Chang'e in lunar orbit, an Indian probe planned, and a South Korean lunar exploration project announced just last week. Regional nations, as well as the United States, are worried that China's space program will take on a military as well as a scientific dimension.

However, according to Reuters, an official from the China National Space Administration today downplayed reports that the government planned to launch a manned lunar mission by 2020 – the date by which the United States too hopes to land astronauts again on the lunar surface.

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