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At the height of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, China was still a developing country. Even today, most Chinese are rural farmers living under the poverty level. Over the last few years though, the Chinese economy has been flourishing. Due mostly to the opening up of capitalist ideas, China is starting to see the beginnings of a technology based economy. The government is now spending its resources and new-found technologies on a budding space program, becoming the third country to send a person into space in 2003. The Chinese National Space Administration has drawn up a roadmap for its space program that is split into three steps: automated exploring, human landing, and staying or living. Most of China's progress has been in the first stage, meaning that robots play an integral role in the Chinese space program.
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The Chang'e Mission
The most ambitious use of robotics in space for China has been its Chang'e Mission, whose goal is to map and explore the Moon. This mission itself is split up into 3 milestones: orbiting, landing, and returning. The Chinese are still in the beginning steps, having only sent the Chang'e 1 lunar orbiting satellite into space. The program was first initiated in 2004, culminating to a launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in 2007. For 2 years the Chang'e 1 mapped the surface of the Moon before it was deliberately crashed in March, 2009.
The Chang'e Mission, which is named after an angel in a Chinese fairytale who flies to the Moon, is only a third of the way through its 13-year plan. The Chang'e 2, another satellite, is set to be launched in October 2010. In 2012 the Chinese space agency plans to usher in the second phase of the mission and launch the Chang'e 3, which will be an actual rover that will land on the Moon. This rover would collect data on lunar topography, geological structure, and the chemical and mineral content of rocks. Beyond lunar rovers, there are no more definite plans for the Chang'e Mission.
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China launched its first satellite in 1970. In the 33 years before China sent a person into space, they launched 78 other satellites into orbit around the Earth. Most of these launches were for scientific or communications purposes, but the United States government believes that some of them were for military purposes. Of the 79 launches, only 67 of them resulted in success. Eight of them were complete failures, resulting in the destruction of the satellite and 4 of them were placed into incorrect orbits. These satellites are the bulk of the Chinese space program, mostly because they have some kind of utility. They are more than just research missions, like sending a rover to Mars, and actually serve a purpose. In fact, some of these launches were actually done on behalf of a foreign company or country for China's profit. If you want to look into research missions by the CNSA, you need to look a little further into the future.
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The Future of China's Space Program
The Chinese National Space Agency has a promising future. The Chinese economy has been skyrocketing, and is projected to keep its trajectory. The government will have more and more money to spend on its space program, which it has not been afraid to do in the past. Where the rest of the world seems to be drawing away from space program, the Chinese are just making their first bold steps. Following the completion of the Chang'e Mission, China hopes to continue its use of robots and send a rover to Mars. However, robots are only the first step in China's plans. There could be a day soon when the Chinese have surpassed even America's huge advances in space technology.
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