BEIJING - China sent a satellite rocketing toward lunar orbit last night, the latest step in an ambitious national program to shoot more astronauts into space, build a space station, and eventually land Chinese astronauts on the moon.
The satellite, called Chang'e after a goddess who flew to the moon in Chinese legend, was lifted into space atop a white-painted Long March 3A rocket that blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province in central China. The China National Space Administration said Chang'e was scheduled to enter a lunar orbit Nov. 5 and send back images and analyses of the moon's surface for about a year.
The trouble-free liftoff, with flame and white smoke billowing out of the rocket, was heralded by commentators and broadcast live on government television, underlining the Communist Party's desire to cultivate national pride in a growing list of accomplishments in space. In the same vein, the launch was scheduled just two days after a national party congress acclaimed Hu Jintao for a second five-year term as party leader, president, and military chief.
"The launch shows our comprehensive state power," said Jiao Weixin, a professor at Peking University's School of Earth and Space Sciences. "It can help to improve our image in the world. Chinese would feel excited and greatly encouraged by just having a Chinese Nobel Prize winner, let alone having the chance to prove to the world our capability to explore space."
Jiao noted that China, which first sent a man into space in 2003 and repeated the exploit with a two-person team in 2005, still lags far behind the United States and Russia in space exploration. But Jiao described yesterday's launch as a milestone for China's efforts, signifying Chinese engineers have the know-how to study the moon.
"Chinese people will be encouraged by it," he said.
Li Hang, 24, who advises students seeking to study abroad, agreed, but he expressed doubt that exploits in space would have an immediate impact on the daily lives of China's 1.3 billion people. "However," he added, "it definitely will have an impact on China's national defense ability and the relationships between China and other countries."
In addition to its role as a rallying point for patriotism, China's 50-year-old space exploration program has begun to return commercial profits. Chinese rockets have for a number of years been launching other countries' satellites at attractive rates. In May, Chinese technicians launched a Chinese-manufactured communications satellite for Nigeria, marking the first time they built a commercial satellite and sent it into orbit on contract for another country.
"By launching the lunar orbiter, we can further improve our technology for launch vehicles, satellite signal transmission, and even facilities at the launch site," Jiao said. "This can help to extend our technology to the business field, like launching satellites for other countries."
Launch officials were definitely into the business spirit. They charged tourists a little more than $100 each for access to two viewing platforms at the launch site, about 1,000 miles southwest of Beijing.
Although Chinese leaders emphasize their goal is peaceful space exploration in cooperation with other nations, the fast-paced and well-funded program has generated concerns that there could be military applications as well.
The military has been in charge of space exploration from the beginning. Troops successfully test-fired an antisatellite missile last January, destroying an out-of-date weather satellite in what some analysts interpreted as a sign that US military satellites could be vulnerable in case of conflict over the Taiwan Strait.