China counts down to man on moon within 15 years

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BEIJING, Oct 17 (Reuters) China launches its first lunar orbiter next week as it counts down to putting a man on the moon within 15 years, state media said today.

Advanced cameras and x-ray ''spectrometers'' have been installed on the orbiter, the Chang'e One, for mapping 3D images of the moon's surface and analysing moon dust, Xinhua news agency said.

The next step in the programme is to launch a moon vehicle, and bring it back to Earth, and to put a man on the moon ''within 15 years'', the China Daily said.

''We have taken hundreds of preventative measures directed towards a successful launch,'' Zhang Qingwei, minister in charge of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence, told reporters.

Zhang said the probe had already been transported to the launch site in Xichang in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

''Although the risks are great, we have confidence it will be a success.'' The launch is set for next Wednesday, a date chosen ''with the consideration of weather and celestial conditions'', Zhang said.

China's space exploration programme has come far since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that China could not even launch a potato into space.

In 2003, it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. In October 2005, it sent two men into orbit and plans a space walk by 2008.

But China's space plans have faced increasing international scrutiny. Fears of a potential space arms race with the United States and other powers have mounted since it blew up one of its own weather satellites using a ground-based missile in January.

Japan plans to launch its first mission to land a spacecraft on the moon in the next decade -- a feat so far achieved only by the former Soviet Union and the United States.

American Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969.

REUTERS RN AS1003

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