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Thursday, October 18, 2007

China Eyes Joining Space Station Project

Given all the recent talk about war in space (not to mention the real thing on the ground), this seems like a no-brainer. The old cold war days are gone. U.S. concerns about working with a communist dictatorship, as the AP puts it here, are laughable. Particularly given the severely tarnished (to be polite) democratic credentials of Russia, a primary partner in the ISS.

China is growing as a power in space, with the capability to launch manned missions, blast satellites out of orbit, and plans to launch a lunar mission soon. Officials there are now saying that first lunar probe will launch later this month, putting it hard on the heels of Japan's Kaguya orbiter.

It would be foolish to try to keep China isolated in space. Cooperation there may not be a perfect recipe for eternal peace, but it's a whole lot better than the kind of saber (or laser?) rattling that's led to space-war planning on both sides.

China hopes to join an international space station project that already counts leading space powers like the United States and Russia as its members, a government official said Tuesday.

China takes great pride in its expanding space program and sees it as a way to validate its claims to be one of the world's leading scientific nations. But China does not participate in the International Space Station, due in part to American unease about allowing a communist dictatorship a place aboard.

On Tuesday, state-run newspapers said China will launch its first lunar probe later this month, just weeks after regional rival Japan successfully sent a lunar satellite into orbit.

"We hope to take part in activities related to the international space station," Li Xueyong, a vice minister of science and technology. "If I am not mistaken, this program has 16 countries currently involved and we hope to be the 17th partner."

A reporter had asked whether China in the future would be more likely to compete or cooperate with America in space. Li said China wanted to cooperate with the United States, but gave no specifics.

In 2003, China launched its first manned space mission, making it the third country to send a human into orbit on its own, after Russia and the United States.

But China also alarmed the international community in January when it blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile. It was the first such test ever conducted by any nation, including the United States and Russia.

That test was widely criticized for its military implications. A similar rocket could be used to shoot military satellites out of space, and create a dangerous haze of space debris.

Beijing insists however that it is committed to the peaceful use of space - a stance that Li reiterated on Tuesday.

"The Chinese government has always pursued a foreign policy of peace and consistently worked for the peaceful use of outer space," he said during a briefing about China's development of science and education on the sidelines of a key Communist Party Congress.

The space station's first section was launched in 1998 and it has been inhabited continuously since 2000 by Russian, U.S. and European crew mates.

Japan's space agency said nearly two weeks ago that its lunar probe was in high orbit over the moon and all was going well as it began a yearlong project to map and study the lunar surface.

China's Chang'e 1 orbiter will use stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust, Xinhua has reported previously.

"Preparations for the moon-orbiting project have gone well and the launch will be made at the end of October," Zhang Qingwei, director of State Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, was quoted as saying Tuesday by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The regional space rivalry is likely to be joined soon by India, which plans to launch a lunar probe in April.

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