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China is on path to 'militarization of space'

The Asian space race is moving along slowly, but steadily – and China is in the lead, with technology that could give it a military advantage over the US.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent / October 28, 2010

In this photo released by China's official Xinhua news agency, a Long March 3C rocket carrying China's second unmanned lunar probe Chang'e II is launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan province on Oct. 1.



Taipei, Taiwan

China looks set to pull ahead in the Asian space race to the moon, putting a spacecraft into lunar orbit Oct. 6 in a preparatory mission for an unmanned moon landing in two or three years.

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Chinese engineers will maneuver the craft into an extremely low orbit, 9.5 miles above the moon's surface, so it can take high-resolution photos of a possible landing site.

Basically, China is looking for a good "parking space" for a moon lander, in a less-known area of the moon known as the Bay of Rainbows.

The mission, called Chang'e 2 after a heroine from Chinese folklore who goes to the moon with a rabbit, highlights China's rapidly growing technological prowess, as well as its keen desire for prestige on the world stage. If successful, it will put China a nose ahead of its Asian rivals with similar lunar ambitions – India and Japan – and signal a challenge to the American post-cold-war domination in space.

The Asian space race

Compared with the American and Soviet mad dashes into space in the late 1950s and '60s, Asia is taking its time – running a marathon, not a sprint. "All of these countries witnessed the cold war, and what led to the destruction of the USSR," says Ajey Lele, an expert on Asian space programs at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, referring to the military and space spending that helped hasten the decline of the Soviet regime. "They understand the value of money and investment, and they are going as per the pace which they can go." But he acknowledged China's edge over India. "They started earlier, and they're ahead of us at this time," he says.

India put the Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft into lunar orbit in 2008, a mission with a NASA payload that helped confirm the presence of water on the moon. It plans a moon landing in a few years' time, and a manned mission as early as 2020 – roughly the same timetable as China.

Japan is also mulling a moonshot, and has branched out into other space exploration, such as the recent Hayabusa mission to an asteroid. Its last lunar orbiter shared the moon with China's first in 2007.

Both Japan's and India's recent missions have been plagued by glitches and technical problems, however, while China's have gone relatively smoothly.

Mr. Lele said the most significant aspect of the Chang'e 2 mission was the attempt at a 9.5-mile-high orbit, a difficult feat. India's own lunar orbiter descended to about 60 miles in 2008, he said, but was forced to return to a more stable, 125-mile-high orbit.