The robotic Chang'e 2 satellite flew out of lunar orbit on June 9 and is now journeying into deep space to conduct exploration and monitoring tests, reported the People's Daily, a Chinese newspaper. The extended mission will also allow the Chinese State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND) to gain more experience with probe operations.
The lunar probe completed its designed six-month mission in April, and since the satellite is in good working order and has enough fuel, scientists decided to use Chang'e 2 for additional space exploration.
"It's the first time in the world for a satellite to be set off from the moon in remote outer space," Zhou Jianliang, deputy chief engineer of Chang'e 2's measure and control system at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, told the Xinhua News Agency.
Prior to leaving lunar orbit, Chang'e 2 took photos of the northern and southern poles of the moon. The probe also descended to a distance of about 9 miles (15 km) away from the moon's surface to take high-resolution images of a region of the moon called Sinus Iridum, or the Bay of Rainbows. [Photos: Our Changing Moon]
This area in the moon's northern hemisphere is a potential site for China's planned robotic lunar landing mission in 2013. Chang'e 2's first images of the Bay of Rainbows were released on Nov. 8, 2010, and they revealed the area to be relatively flat, with craters and rocks of various sizes.
Chinese scientists are hoping that Chang'e 2 can continue its operations until the end of next year, which will allow the probe to be used in tests of other space projects, according to news reports.
"We are developing outer space measure and control stations in outer space and they will be capable to carry out tasks by the end of the second half [of] next year," a SASTIND scientist who requested anonymity told Xinhua.
Still, they may encounter challenges along the way, such as weakened telecommunications, measure and control, since Chang'e 2 was not specifically designed for deep space exploration, Zhou told Xinhua.
Chang'e 2 was launched on Oct. 1, 2010, and arrived in lunar orbit five days later. The probe is the second step in China's three-phase moon exploration program, which includes a series of unmanned missions to explore the lunar surface. The Chang'e probes are named after the nation's mythical moon goddess.
China is aiming to launch a moon rover around 2012 as part of the second phase of the program. Another rover will land on the moon and return to Earth with lunar samples around 2017, according to Xinhua.
The Chang'e 1 probe launched in October 2007 and conducted a 16-month moon observation mission, after which it crash-landed on the lunar surface by design, in March 2009.