BEIJING – Over a few short months, Japan, China, and India will all have lunar probes orbiting the moon, sparking talk of a new space race in Asia.
China, for one, takes exception at that characterization.
On Thursday, a top official in its secretive military-backed lunar explorer program defended the probe launched last week as an innovation that is part of a future wave of cooperation, not competition, in outer space.
"It's all peaceful," said Pei Zhaoyu, assistant director of the Lunar Exploration Program Center, when asked whether a space race was on. "The countries involved in lunar exploration are developing an understanding. They're evolving a mechanism for cooperation."
China's launch of the Chang'e 1 satellite put in motion an ambitious space exploration plan, and came just weeks after rival Japan launched its own moon probe. India plans to send its own lunar probe into space in April.
The three missions represent a new wave of lunar exploration following those begun in the Cold War by the United States and former Soviet Union, and another bout in the 1990s that saw Japan and Western Europe joining the club.
James Oberg, a space consultant in Houston, said the current glut of lunar missions is less of a space race and more a matter of those countries developing new technologies at similar rates.
All three have lately developed more powerful booster rockets, along with experience with payloads gleaned from launching commercial satellites, said Oberg, a veteran of 22 years at NASA Mission Control.
However, he added that such missions do offer tangible benefits for a country's business and reputation.
"Doing 'moon probes' advertises a country's technological level and that's good for high-tech exports, and for validating the threat-level of its high-tech weapons," Oberg said in recent comments to The Associated Press.
Oberg likened the Chinese probe, named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon Similar, to the orbiting U.S. moon explorers "Clementine" and "Prospector" launched in the 1990s.
In Beijing, Pei told reporters all was well with the satellite, which is due to move into lunar capture orbit Monday, when it will allow itself to be caught by the moon's gravity.
"All the systems on board are currently in excellent condition and the spacecraft is on the expected trajectory," said Pei, who is also spokesman for the China National Space Administration — China's version of NASA.
The lunar mission adds depth to a Chinese space program that has sent astronauts orbiting around the Earth twice in the past four years and is a source of great national pride.
Pei dwelt extensively on the technical aspects of the lunar mission at a news conference that illustrated a growing openness within the space program.
Foreign observers were present at the satellite's Oct. 24 launch from the Xichang site in the southwestern province of Sichuan, Pei said. He said data gathered during the yearlong mission would be shared with scientists from other nations.
China sent its first satellite into Earth orbit in the 1970s, but the space program only seriously took off in the 1980s, growing apace with the country's booming economy.
In 2003, China became only the third country in the world after the United States and Russia to put its own astronauts into space.
But China also alarmed the international community in January when it blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile.
Pei dodged a question about the anti-satellite weapon, but gave the budget for the engineering stage of the lunar program as $187 million.
"China has always adhered to the principle of peaceful use of outer space," he said. "All goals, including engineering goals, and scientific goals, are without military purposes."
Carried into space by a Long March 3A rocket, the Chang'e 1 satellite is expected to transmit its first photo back to China in late November.
It will survey the lunar surface using stereo radar and other tools as a precursor to a planned landing on the moon's surface in 2012 and a recoverable mission by 2020.
Pei said China was being careful not to travel territory already covered by the space programs of Russia, the U.S., Japan and the European Space Agency.
He said that by launching the probe, China was playing to its science and technology strengths, while laying the groundwork for future innovations and benefiting the country's economic and social development — a reference to the Communist Party's use of the space program to drum up patriotism and loyalty.
"China's lunar program got off to a relatively late start, but we hope to ... try to do something that no one has done before," Pei said.
"We're fully confident that alongside the progress in our science and technology, our lunar and deep space exploration programs will advance rapidly from strength to strength," he said.