Second Chinese lunar probe set for launch tonight

The Chinese National Space Administration says its Chang’e-2 lunar probe is ready for launch tonight from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center (XSLC) in Sichuan province.

The spacecraft, named after a Chinese goddess who flew to the moon, will get to within nine miles of the moon’s surface. From there, it will conduct tests intended to aid preparations for the planned Chang’e-3 mission, including surveying the proposed landing site using a high-resolution 3-D camera and laser altimeter.

Chang’e-3, the country’s first moon landing, will be an unmanned probe expected to launch in 2013, releasing a moon rover to survey the surface and interior of the moon. It should be followed in 2020 or thereabouts by a manned moon landing.

According to the state-owned Xinghua news agency, Chang’e-2 won’t be sent to the scrap-heap after its six-month mission. Unlike its predecessor, Chang’e-1, it will be carried to orbit by the Long March rocket, meaning that it will still have a significant amount of fuel left after the mission is complete.

Instead, officials are considering implementing one of three extra missions.

The first is for the probe to remain in lunar orbit gathering data before making a moon landing that could provide useful information for the Chang’e-3 mission. The second option is for it to carry on into outer space, again as a test run for future missions, and the third would be to bring it back into an Earth orbit.

While the launch is expected tonight, on China’s National Day holiday, the National Space Administration says it has allowed for a three-day launch window, and may delay takeoff if the current poor weather continues.