NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has circled the moon since 2009, is about to have some company. China launched its second lunar orbiter, known as Chang'e 2, on October 1, according to state-owned media reports.
The probe lifted off just before 7:00 P.M. local time from Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province aboard a Long March 3C rocket, according to the Xinhua news agency. The spacecraft will cruise for five days before reaching the moon, on par with the amount of time it took LRO to reach lunar orbit.
The probe is a follow-on to the successful Chang'e 1 orbiter, which circled the moon at an altitude of 200 kilometers from 2007 to 2009. The new Chang'e 2, equipped with a camera and a laser altimeter, will get closer to the surface to scout locations for a future robotic lander. The probe will enter a primary 100-kilometer lunar orbit before swooping as low as 15 kilometers toward the end of its mission, according to NASA's National Space Science Data Center; Xinhua reports that the spacecraft's design life span is six months.
China's space program has taken significant steps forward in the past few years. Alongside the country's robotic lunar missions, the Chinese manned spaceflight program has proceeded apace. In 2003 China became only the third nation to independently launch its own astronauts into space; since that time two more manned missions have followed, including the country's first spacewalk in 2008.
Lunar orbit has become a popular destination for the world's space agencies of late. In addition to China's two Chang'e spacecraft and NASA's LRO, Japan operated its Kaguya probe in lunar orbit from 2007 to 2009, and India's Chandrayaan 1 lifted off in 2008 and collected lunar data until mission controllers lost contact with the probe the following year.
Artist's conception of Chang'e 1 probe: NASA