China, Japan to launch lunar missions

By HIROKO TABUCHI, Associated Press Writer Fri Aug 24, 4:23 PM ET

TOKYO – Japan claims its project is the biggest since Apollo. China says it is readying its probes to study the lunar surface to plan a landing.

With Asia’s biggest powers set to launch their first unmanned lunar missions — possibly as early as next month — the countdown has begun in the hottest space race since the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon nearly four decades ago.

Japan’s space agency said last week that its SELENE lunar satellite is on track for a Sept. 13 launch, following years of delay as engineers struggled to fix mechanical problems. China, meanwhile, is rumored to be planning a September blastoff for its Chang’e 1 probe, but is coy as to the date.

The Chinese satellite and its Changzheng 3 rocket have passed all tests, and construction of the launch pad is finished, according to the National Space Administration’s Web site. Last month, China’s minister of defense technology told CCTV that all was ready for a launch “by the end of the year.”

Officials have tried to play down the importance of beating each other off the pad, but their regional rivalry is never far below the surface.

“I don’t want to make this an issue of win or lose. But I believe whoever launches first, Japan’s mission is technologically superior,” said Yasunori Motogawa, an executive at JAXA, Japan’s space agency. “We’ll see which mission leads to the scientific breakthroughs.”

China’s military-run space program has taken a great leap forward in recent years, and the country sent shock waves through the region in 2003, when it became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070824/ap_on_sc/asia_s_moon_race

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