China and India are both planning to launch moon shots within a year in the latest sign of the two Asian powerhouses’ intensifying rivalry and growing technological prowess.
Although both countries deny they are engaged in a 21st century re-run of the 1960s race to the moon between the cold war superpowers, their haste to launch suggests more than casual interest in the other’s progress.
China said this month that it expected to launch its first unmanned lunar orbiter, the Chang’e-1 (named after China’s mythological “lady in the moon”) before the end of this year, while India this week announced that it could send up a similar space probe as early as April 2008.
The two lunar programmes should be scientifically complementary, with Chinese scientists stressing Chang’e’s goal of improving understanding of the geochemistry of the moon’s surface and India focusing on three-dimensional mapping.
Chinese lunar programme scientist Ouyang Ziyuan told the Financial Times in 2005 that he was excited about the possibility that the moon might be a rich source of helium-3, a potential fuel for nuclear fusion reactors that is scarce on earth.
S. Krishnamurthy, a spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organisation, said on Wednesday that the spin-offs for India’s nuclear programme from potential lunar sources of helium-3 could be “considerable”.
Non-governmental groups have put the Indian space agency on the defensive about the programme, arguing it is hard for a country that is home to a quarter of the world’s poor to justify costly space missions.
Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has defended it, saying the country must deal with the fundamental problems of development and at the same time aspire to operate on the frontiers of science.
“In the increasingly globalised world we live in, a base of scientific and technical knowledge has emerged as a critical determinant of the wealth and status of nations and it is that which drives us to programmes of this type,” he said last year.
Mr Krishnamurthy said the Chandrayaan-1 probe, which will map the moon’s surface for chemicals using a spectrometer and terrain-mapping cameras during a two-year mission, would cost Rs3.9bn ($96.3m), a 10th of ISRO’s annual budget.
Under Beijing’s three-stage plan, the Chang’e orbiter will be followed by a lunar landing and then by a mission to bring back rock and soil samples. India is building a two-legged robot for a possible follow-up mission to the moon’s surface in 2011.
However, the Chang’e programme will have to compete for resources with the high-profile manned space programme and Beijing’s push to develop its military space assets.
Madhavan Nair, chairman of ISRO, said this week that his organisation would submit a report to the Indian government in a year’s time on whether a manned space mission, likely to cost about Rs100bn ($2.4bn), would be needed.
Nasa will provide two scientific instruments for Chandrayaan-1, illustrating the Bush administration’s drive to build a strategic partnership with India, the centrepiece of which is a deal on nuclear co-operation.
Chandrayaan-1, equipped with a US-made water-detecting radar and a moon mineralogy mapper, will be propelled into space by a satellite launcher from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota, 100km north of Chennai.