MOSCOW, October 22 (RIA Novosti) - This week China will launch a new lunar orbiter, which, in contrast with previous space probes, will return to Earth after orbiting the Moon, China's official Xinhua news agency reports.
Ye Peijian, senior adviser to the China Academy Of Space Technology talked to Xinhua about the probe earlier this month: “After we are able to have probes return to earth, we'll study and move to possible manned lunar missions," adding that "China started late in the space race. We never had astronauts in the lunar missions. But we have good technology for manned space missions.”
The latest spacecraft, which has not been named, arrived to the launch site at Xichang, located in southwest China's Sichuan Province, in August. It is set to take off at some point between October 24 and 26 and will test technology for use in the next step in China’s lunar explorations. Another probe is planned for 2017, Chang'e-5, which aims to land on the Moon, gather samples from its surface and then return to Earth.
Sending probes to the Moon is a feat China shares with five other nations or organizations: India, Japan, the European Union, USA, and Soviet Union. However, only the latter two have to date succeeded in bringing the spacecraft back to Earth, because it requires higher levels of fuel and protection for re-entry in to the Earth’s atmosphere.
In December China’s Chang’e 3 probe landed on the Moon and deployed a lunar rover vehicle, called “Yutu”. The vehicle was sent to scout the Moon’s surface and investigate its geological structure, substrate and natural resources. The robot was the first to soft land on the Moon in 40 years.
This month, one of Yutu’s designers told Xinhua that Yutu, which was intended to roam the planet for three months, was now, after nine months, “gradually degrading” and that his team were keen to find out the reasons for the control problems which had beset the vehicle in January: "We hoped the Moon rover would go farther, and we really want to find the true reason why it didn't."
These developments mark the latest advancements in China’s ambitious space project. In 2018 China plans to start the launch of experimental modules for its planned space station, with the station itself to be built in 2022.