Space probe secrets put on Internet

THE TABLES were turned on China, which has had so much success in spying on the United States, when pictures of its secret crewed rocket capsule were published yesterday on the Internet.

China is still waiting to show off its first astronaut - though it has been training people for the task since the 1970s.

The revelation will be an embarrassment to the Chinese authorities, who since 1995 have repeatedly announced plans to send a crew into space using their own rockets. So far, though, they have failed to do so - and the most recent claims are that it may not be until 2001 that China puts its own astronauts into space.

The pictures were said to have been taken last year by a Mongolian construction company that helped to build the new launch facilities, at Jiuquan, south- east of Peking, in the Gansu region.

China was offered the chance to send up astronauts with the US during the days of detente, and then with Russia on a paid-for basis to the space station Mir. But so far nobody has made the trip, despite the fact that in 1995 two Chinese men began training at a Russian cosmonaut centre with the intention of returning to China for a manned spaceshot.

The interest of experts was heightened by the crew capsule at the top of the rocket, which appears to draw on the 35-year-old design for the Soyuz rocket developed by the Soviet Union in the days of the "space race". The capsule includes an escape tower, which contains rockets that would fire to separate the capsule from the rocket if there was an emergency during countdown. Such a tower is not normally used in unmanned spacecraft.

However, the need may be more acutely felt in China. Rumours persist of an accident at take-off in the 1970s that killed the occupants of the first attempt to launch a crewed rocket.

In March, strong rumours suggested that the Chinese were to make a test flight of its new rocket, an improved version of its "Long March" design.

The first, uncrewed test of the new capsule is expected in October. In the pictures the CZ2F rocket is seen being wheeled out of a large assembly building. Also clearly visible is a mobile launch platform to transport the rocket to the launch pad - the first time China has employed this method.