Tuesday, November 6, 2007

China's first moon expedition swoops into lunar orbit

The Chang'e 1 spacecraft entered lunar orbit at about 0337 GMT Monday (10:37 p.m. EST Sunday), capping off a 12-day voyage from planet Earth that began with an Oct. 24 blastoff from the Xichang space base in southwestern China.

The spacecraft circled Earth several times after launch, gradually raising its orbit before embarking on a course last week to intercept the moon early Monday.

The 5,000-pound probe fired a maneuvering engine for about 22 minutes for the critical insertion burn, slowing the spacecraft's velocity by about 800 miles per hour. The change in speed was enough to allow the moon's weak gravity to capture the spacecraft in a preliminary orbit stretching from an altitude of 124 miles to a high point of about 5,344 miles, according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency.

Further thruster firings will circularize Chang'e 1's orbit at a distance of 124 miles from the moon's surface, Xinhua reported.

The first images of the moon from Chang'e 1 are expected by the end of this month. Controllers plan to transition the mission into an operational phase by December.

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