On Sunday, the Chinese space program announced that their satellite, Chang'e-I, ended its 16 month mapping mission with a planned crash on the lunar surface, destroying the craft.

Chang'e-I was the first part of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, an orbital mission, which was designed to map the lunar surface in unprecedented detail with three-dimensional maps, providing valuable reference material for future lunar landings on the part of China's space program. The probe also gathered information about the Lunar surface, mapping elements and the composition of the lunar regolith as well as information on solar wind, all important information for upcoming missions to our nearest neighbor in space. The next part of their mission, Chang'e-2, is scheduled for launch in 2011, which has a similar mission to its sister Chang'e-I.


The ability to reach the moon is an important step for China, which recently conducted its first space walk with Shenzhou 7. Taikonauts Zhai Zhigang and Liu Boming left the spacecraft in September of 2008, before returning successfully to earth. Taken together, these two events show that China is well on its way towards the moon. Not only has China proved that they can put the proper hardware into orbit, they have the ability to put someone into space. NASA's own Gemini and early Apollo missions were designed to test each step that would be required to conduct lunar EVAs by showing that astronauts could reach orbit, but also walk outside.

In addition to lunar ambitions, China also recently announced plans to place a space station, Tiangong-1, in orbit, where orbital rendezvous and zero-gravity experiments can be undertaken. The ability to dock with another object in space is another important step towards lunar ambitions.


Getting to the moon is not an easy task - an aspiring lunar explorer must undertake a whole series of steps, each one requiring a lot of training and support. It took NASA almost a decade to go from orbit to landing on the moon, designing much of the hardware and testing it during that time, with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. China has the advantage in this regard, because many of the unknowns, such as basic medical questions have been answered already - we know that the lunar landing can be accomplished, and that humans can survive in zero-gravity for extended periods of time.

Upcoming missions for China include the Chang'e-2, which will be similar to Chang'e-1, Chang'e-3, which will attempt a 'soft' landing on the moon's surface, and will have rovers to explore the surface, with Chang'e-4 planned to land on the moon and return samples back to earth, expected in 2017.


This mission comes at a time when India and Iran have both launched satellites of their own, signaling future potential rivals in space, with North Korea also announcing that it plans to put a communications satellite into space in the near future. It would appear that there will be another space race within the next two decades, with the United States also intending to return to the moon within that time frame.

Read more from the BBC and Business Week. Photos from Xinhuanet and Cyber Space Orbit