"Citius, Altius, Fortius." That's the motto of the Olympics, the quadrennial competition among the world's greatest athletes. In August 2008, the Olympics will be held for the first time in China, at a series of venues centered around the national capital of Beijing.
But the phrase -- which translates as "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" -- applies equally well to the China space program, which is planning an impressive series of launches this year.
According to Huang Qiang, secretary general of China's Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND), China is planning to launch 15 rockets in the coming year, resulting in the deployment of 17 orbiting satellites.
First Chinese Spacewalk
In addition, another mission, known as Shenzhou VII, is scheduled for October. According to Xinhua, China's official news agency, the Shenzhou VII mission will feature the country's first spacewalk. The Shenzhou program has been under active development since 1992.
Huang told Xinhua that several new technologies developed by the Chinese space program would be used during the Beijing Olympics, particularly for security and meteorological forecasting. No additional details were provided, however, on the upcoming launches or the agency's technological innovations.
China's space program has been accelerating rapidly. Less than five years ago, the Asian nation became just the third country to put a human in space, and late last year, China successfully put a satellite in lunar orbit.
In late November, China released a photo mosaic of images taken by the Chang'e 1 Moon probe. The image caused something of a stir on the Internet: The similarity of the Chang'e mosaic to images taken in 1994 by a U.S. lunar probe called Clementine led some bloggers to accuse Chinese space officials of faking the entire exercise.
However, the controversy was quickly defused by several scientists around the world, including most notably Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society.
"The two images cover the same areas, but they are evidently not the same image," Lakdawalla wrote in her blog. "The biggest difference arises from a different lighting angle between the two: The Clementine image is lit from the top (north), while the Chang'e image is lit from the northwest. There is also much more detail visible in the Chang'e 1 image. So the notion that China faked their lunar photo can be put to rest."
Now China is collaborating with Russia on a mission to Mars sometime in 2009, and has plans to put a space station in orbit in either 2010 or 2011.
The ultimate goal, not surprisingly, is to put a person on the moon. Some 18 months ago, Long Lehao, deputy chief architect of China's lunar probe project, predicted that a moon landing could occur as early as 2024. On separate occasions, Chinese space officials have said that another long-range goal of the program is a flight to Mars with a human crew.