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China set to launch second moon orbiter on Friday

Posted: October 1, 2010

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PRAGUE -- China is gearing up to launch its second lunar orbiter as soon as Friday, according to state media reports.

Artist's concept of Chang'e 1, the predecessor of Chang'e 2. Credit: CNSA
Liftoff is set for 1059:57 GMT (6:59:57 a.m. EDT) Friday from the Xichang space center in southwestern China's Sichuan province. A 180-foot-tall Long March 3C rocket will propel the Chang'e 2 probe toward the moon from Pad No. 2 at Xichang.

Reports from the Xinhua news agency, a state-owned media outlet, say the mission's launch window extends through Sunday.

Friday is China's National Day marking the 61st anniversary of Communist rule there.

Engineers at Xichang began loading storable propellant into the Long March 3C rocket's first and second stages Thursday morning. The launcher's third stage burns cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which will be pumped into the rocket a few hours prior to liftoff.

Chang'e 2 was built as a spare spacecraft for China's first lunar orbiter, which launched in 2007 and ended its mission in 2009 with a controlled crash into the moon.

Chang'e 2 will reach the moon about five days after launch, cutting Chang'e 1's flight time by more than half. The Long March 3C rocket, boosted by two liquid-fueled strap-on engines, will place the orbiter on a directly to the moon.

Chang'e 1's smaller Long March 3A launcher could only put the 5,000-pound spacecraft into Earth orbit, where the probe fired its own engines to finish the trip to the moon.

Once it spirals into lunar orbit, Chang'e 2 will study the moon from an altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 60 miles. Its closest approach to the surface will be approximately 15 kilometers, or just 9 miles, according to Xinhua.

The satellite will collect high-resolution imagery of potential landing sites for Chang'e 3, China's next lunar mission that will touch down on the moon. Chang'e 3 is slated for blastoff in 2013.

Another robotic probe later this decade will attempt to return lunar samples to Earth.

Officials named the Chang'e lunar program after the Chinese goddess of the moon.

China is offering rare opportunities for the public to view Friday's launch at the Xichang base, an area usually strictly controlled by the military. Tickets to access the facility are selling for about $119, according to Chinese media reports.