BEIJING (AFP) — China's maiden lunar probe successfully entered the moon's orbit on Monday, officials said, marking a critical step in the country's year-long mission to photograph and map the surface of the moon.
Chang'e I blasted off on October 24, signalling China's rising space ambitions and Beijing's participation in a renewed race to explore the moon with rivals Japan and India.
"We have basically succeeded in entering lunar orbit," Wang Yejun, head mission engineer, said on China Central Television Monday.
In August Japan launched its first lunar probe, while India has a planned mission for next year.
In Monday's critical manoeuvre, Chang'e I fired retro-rockets for 22 minutes, slowing as it approached within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the moon's surface and allowing it to be sucked into lunar orbit by the body's gravitational pull.
The probe will remain in an "elliptical orbit" for the next two days, which will carry it as far as 8,500 kilometres away from the moon before swinging back to within 200 kilometres, Xinhua news agency said, quoting Ji Gang, an official monitoring the flight.
As the probe continues to brake, it is expected to enter a "working orbit" on November 7, when the craft will circle the moon once every 127 minutes from a stable altitude of about 200 kilometres above the surface.
At that time, Chang'e I will begin its year-long mission of photographing and mapping the lunar surface. Its first pictures are not expected to be transmitted until late this month.
The probe, named after a legendary Chinese goddess who flew to the moon, is the first stage of China's lunar programme, which includes landing an unmanned rover on the surface by 2012 and a manned mission by around 2020.
China successfully launched astronaut Yang Liwei into orbit in 2003, making it the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a man in space.
Visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates offered congratulations following a meeting with Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan.
"I congratulate (Cao) and the people of China on this achievement. It's clearly a credit to Chinese industry and innovation," he told reporters in Beijing.
Wang said it remained to be seen how smoothly the probe's orbital entry had gone.
"We still need to go through all the data and ensure that the satellite arrived in lunar orbit in good shape," he said.
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