Monday, March 2, 2009

China: Proud of Mediocrity?

China Daily and Xinhua continue to paint a bright and shinning future for their ambitions in low Earth Orbit and, following the de-orbiting of Chang'E 1 late last week, plans for safely landing future Chang'E probes.

"China plans to land Chang'e III on the moon at the soonest in 2013, Ye Peijian, chief designer of Chang'e I, the country's first moon probe, said here Monday.

"The mission of Chang'e III is to make soft landing and probe the moon, said Ye, a member of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top political advisory body.

"Before the mission, Chang'e II will be launched at the latest in 2011 to test key technologies of soft landing and lower technical risks, he said.

"The timetable was revealed as China concluded the first phase of its three-stage moon mission with a controlled impact of Chang'e I on the moon Sunday.

"Ye said China's three-stage moon mission could be defined as "orbiting", "landing" and "returning".

"A Chang'e IV will also be launched during the second phase, which will be concluded before 2017, said Ye. But he didn't detail the task of the fourth probe.

"Ye said the third phase will last from 2017 to 2020, during which China will launch recoverable moon rovers.

"Chang'e" is named after a legendary moon goddess. But Ye said the recoverable moon rovers may not continue to be named after the goddess. The name hasn't been decided yet," he said.

"China's space program claimed a new landmark with its first space walk last year. It is the third nation, after the US and Russia, to launch people into space."

Time will tell how hard and fast Chang'E 1 plowed into Mare Fecunditatis, 150 miles east of the central Messier crater group.

The Moon is a notoriously difficult place to maintain a low orbit, with it's dishomogenity of mass.

Japan has already announced plans to de-orbit Kaguya late this summer, taking the route followed by Lunar Prospector in 1999, by first stabilizing the vehicle in a much closer and more unstable orbit where, like Prospector, it has been announced JAXA's first lunar orbiter can more closely study lunar magnetic anomalies.

It is still hoped things can be timed well enough precision that Kaguya and/or Chandrayaan to view the impact of the LCROSS and it's shepherd craft, if LRO/LCROSS can ever regain the priority it lost late last year, when it was announced that it gave up its December launch window in favor of tests of the secretive USAF X-37.

Chang'E arrived a few weeks before Kaguya, in 2007, and the Chinese National Space Agency has been downright stingy with photographs and data.

JAXA's Kaguya and ISRO's Chandrayaan have, at times, been sometime frustrating in more general releases of new data, blaming personnel shortages. JAXA vastly improved on that situation late last year, though they are still making new releases of HDTV photographs, etc., first, and in some cases almost exclusively in Japanese.

American amateurs have learned to scope the Japanese Kaguya Image Gallery to discover new data sometimes weeks before when its availability has been generally announced.

While not wanting to make light of China's engineering achievement, perhaps I hope I am not the first to suggest that the "first time total moon photograph," proudly introduced in the Great Hall of the People late last year, is neither the first nor is it particularly well done.

Unless there is some deeper resolution not yet been made available, 59 percent of the lunar surface is better photographed by amateur observers on Earth.

Dennis Wingo and the crowd at LOIRP are getting better data out of 42 year old telemetry from the Lunar Orbiter series.

Everyone apologizes for the Chinese National Space Agency, for their "outstanding achievements" but that big 1-25000 scale photograph was just plain lousy. Ed White and Alexi Leonov walked in space more than forty years ago. It is not as though they are required to re-invent the wheel.

Some of the best cosmological science is coming out of the Chinese universities, some really outstanding work on lunar morphology that simply would not have been possible without Clementine, for example, and the gigabytes of data from that mission and others freely available on the web. They sure didn't waste much time learning how to build fission and then fusion bombs, or the ICBM's to carry them, and they are not wasting time building a deep water navy that could project force in the Gulf of Mexico as easily as the United States does the Persian Gulf.

It's not a matter or pride or resources. It's a matter of priorities. Some days it seems as though the Americans will suffer the fate of Spain in the Americas, destined to make the European discovery (and to loot the local wealth) only to have that empire gradually diminish until a final and unnecessary war with America lost them their Empire. (They did have a good three century run, though.)

And then this new President surprises me completely, deciding NASA should not be thrown out with the bath water. Maybe someone over at the White House actually read the National Academies' Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon.

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