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China breaks ground on space launch center
Published on: 2009-09-14
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BEIJING — China broke ground Monday on its fourth space center, highlighting the country's continuing ambitions for satellite launches and space exploration six years after sending its first man into orbit.

The center on the southern island province of Hainan incorporates a launch site, mission control center, and facilities for technology development and scientific experiments, state media reports said. It will host launches of communications satellites as well as components for a future space station and deep space exploration.

The reports portrayed the center as a major stride forward for China's military-backed space program, which has launched three manned missions since 2003, including one last year that featured the country's first space walk.

China's space ambitions include building an orbiting station and sending a mission to the moon.

The Hainan center, slated to go into use in 2013, is located at a latitude of about 19 degrees north, far closer to the equator than China's other bases in the its southwest and northern plains. Proximity to the equator is an advantage for launching geostationary satellites used for telecommunications because less fuel propellant is needed.

That should aid China's project of assembling its own Beidou, or "Compass," navigation system as an alternative to the U.S. satellite GPS network, the dominant positioning system.

China is just the third country after Russia and the United States to have launched a person into space, and has long operated a successful commercial satellite launch program.

Future goals include an unmanned moon landing around 2012, a mission to return samples in 2015, and possibly a manned lunar mission by 2017 — three years ahead of an initial U.S. target date for returning to the moon.

China's space program enjoys strong public support, shielding it from the public doubts and budgetary pressures that constrain such programs elsewhere.

However, cooperation in space with other countries has been inhibited by wariness over the program's close military ties. Highlighting that relationship, Chang Wanquan, a People's Liberation Army general who sits on the ruling Communist Party's powerful central military commission, joined other officers and technicians in Monday's groundbreaking ceremony, the reports said.

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