A Chinese navigation satellite was successfully hauled into orbit Friday to kick off a busy year in space that will include the launch of the country's first probe to study the Moon.
Liftoff of the Beidou satellite was at 1628 GMT (11:28 a.m. EST) from the Xichang space launch center in southwestern China's Sichuan province. The three-stage Long March 3A rocket deployed its payload into the planned orbit 24 minutes later, according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency.
The craft is bound for a circular geostationary orbit about 22,300 miles (35,888 kilometers) high, where it will join three other Beidou craft launched during the past seven years.
The Beidou satellites are the first group in a series of space-based navigation platforms called Compass. The fleet should become operational next year for much of China, but it could take several more years before it can be used worldwide, according to Xinhua.
The Compass system will supply users with precise positioning data similar to information produced by the U.S. Global Positioning System.
The launch came less than a month after China conducted a controversial anti-satellite weapons test. The exercise destroyed an aging weather satellite and drew criticism from the United States and other governments around the world.
China plans a quick pace of orbital launches for 2007, with up to ten launches on tap before the end of the year.
A major highlight for the Chinese space program will be the launch of the Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter in April. The probe will blast off atop a Long March 3A rocket and will orbit the Moon at an altitude of approximately 125 miles (201 kilometers), according to the People's Daily newspaper.
Chang'e 1 will create a detailed map of the lunar surface and analyze the Moon's soil content, Chinese scientists said.
The craft is the first step in a comprehensive lunar exploration program in development by China. Further missions could feature landing craft and a probe to return rock samples to Earth.
Other launches scheduled for this year include the next satellite in a joint Earth observation fleet operated by China and Brazil. CBERS 2B will be the third spacecraft in the program, and officials will set an official launch date during a joint project committee meeting in March.
China's second marine survey satellite, called Haiyang 1B, could be launched in April to begin a mission to monitor ocean conditions such as temperature and winds, officials told People's Daily.
Two communications satellites are also on China's space manifest for 2007. The television broadcasting and relay craft are to be launched in June and October to help provide media coverage for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
China has also been updating its weather satellite system in preparation for the Olympics. A next-generation polar-orbiting meteorological satellite is planned to launch in late 2007, Xinhua reported.
The Sinosat 3 communications satellite will launch in May, and a number of other commercial, scientific and military craft could also be put in space this year.
Chinese workers are also working to prepare for the next step in the country's human spaceflight program. Slated for launch in 2008, Shenzhou 7 will carry China's first three-person crew into orbit for a flight lasting several days.
During the mission, at least one astronaut will exit the capsule for a spacewalk - another first for the nation's burgeoning space program.
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