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China Focus

China: A Space Odyssey

28 | that’s China Zhejiang

By Alex Hoegberg


ince the beginning of time, mankind has gazed up at the unfathomably vast star-sprinkled sky and wondered what’s out there. For centuries, space exploration was merely an absurd dream. When journeys into space became reality in the mid-20th century, being the first to reach one or another major mile stone in space technology turned into a matter of national pride and internationally acknowledged prestige - it was the ultimate sign of advanced technological progress and welfare. When the United States and the Soviet Union were launching into the space race in the 1950s, pushing and pulling at each other to be the first to obtain t he technologic al upp er hand, the People's Republic of China still had a thing or two to work out on Earth before they could start reaching for the stars. Since the 1990’s the dominance of Russia a n d t h e U . S h a s w a n e d a n d Ch i n a ’s space programs have taken off properly and are now slowly gaining ground. The international community is watching China’s progress in space with a fair amount of curiosity. Certain advocates, especially in the U.S., worry that China will surpass them in terms of space prestige, and some of their concerns are not unfounded.

From the 1960’s and onwards, several space projects were announced, most of them not particularly successful. As a reaction to the American moon landing in 1969, China initiated the top-secret, crewed space program Project 714. The aim was to put two people in space by 1973. Project 714 was cancelled in May ’72 for 'economic reasons'. A second crewed space program was announced a few times in the late 1970’s, but was cancelled in 1980.

China in Orbit In 1986, almost 30 years after the U.S.S.R. had put Sputnik in orbit, a brand new space program, Project 863, was proposed. This project aimed to put together a manned spacecraft to ferr y astronauts to space stations. Over a few years, it evolved into what would become the first successful Chinese manned space program, Project 921 or the Shenzhou Program. T h e f i r s t p h a s e o f P r o j e c t 9 21 w a s authorized and given funding in 1992. The first phase involved launching unmanned versions of the manned spacecraft, followed by the fir s t manned space flight. T he Shenzhou Program had four unmanned test flights and two manned missions. The first flight, Shenzhou 1, launched in November 1999. After another three tests carrying animals and plants or dummies, China finally launched its first manned mission in space in October 2003. Yang Liwei was carried on board Shenzhou 5 in orbit around the ear th for 21 hours, an event which made China the third country in the world to independently launch a human into space. Two years later Shenzhou 6 w a s l a u n c h e d fo r a five day mission, which mar ke d the ending of Project 921’s first phase.

China’s first satellite remained in orbit for 26 days, transmitting the revolutionary song ‘The East Is Red’

The China National Space Adminis trat i o n (CN S A ), which directs China’s space program, can be traced back to the late 1950’s. China’s space ambitions started when it was decided that China needed its own strategic weapons, including nuclear bombs and warheads. Chairman Mao Zedong deemed this necessary in order to prevent the superpowers of the time (the U.S. and

The second phase of Proje c t 921 involves a series of flights to prove the technology, conduct rendezvous and docking operations in orbit, and operate an eight-tonne s p a c e l a b. T h i s p h a s e begun with Shenzhou 7, China’s first spacewalk m i s s i o n w i t h a t hre e man crew, launched in 2008. This month China’s small, 8.5 -tonne space that’s China Zhejiang | 29


The competition for the moon was settled back in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and his band of merry men became the first humans on the moon. At t h e t i m e Ch i n a w a s still, pardon my witticism, light years from reaching the moon. But with new technology and decades of experience from space exploration accumulated, China has quickly caught up with the veterans and may well turn out to be the first nation to put people on Mars.

the Soviet Union) from bullying the recently formed People’s Republic. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit earth, in 1957, China wanted to equal the superpowers by placing its own satellite in orbit. The idea was to do this by 1959, just in time to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. However, it wouldn't be until 1970 before China launched its first satellite which remained in orbit for 26 days, transmitting the revolutionary song ‘The East Is Red’.

China Focus laboratory module Tiangong 1 (‘heavenly palace’) will be put into orbit. Shenzhou 8, 9 and 10 are meant to dock with Tiangong 1 to bring crews and cargo to set up this small orbital space laboratory complex. The second phase of the project is intended to be concluded when Shenzhou 11 takes one final crew to Tiangong 1.This would allow China to prepare and master the technologies necessary for the third phase of Project 921. The third and final phase of the project would be a basic but permanent space station, with a total mass of under 100 tonnes. Its core module, which would serve as living quarters for the permanent crew, would exceed 20 tonnes. This space station would also include a Shenzhou cargo and manned Shenzhou aircraft, as well as two other laboratory modules. The current plan is for the space station to be completed sometime around 2020.

Barking at the Moon China though, has plans of reaching further out into space than that. Putting satellites, modules and space stations in orbit around the Earth just isn’t enough of a challenge. The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), also known as the Chang’e Program after the Chang’e lunar orbiters, has already finished its first of three phases. The longterm aim of the program is to explore the moon in preparation for sending the first Chinese crew there. CLEP ’s first phase meant sending t wo lunar probes, Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 to orbit the moon. Chang’e 1, launched in 2007, provided the most accurate and

highest resolution 3-D map of the moon surface ever created. It mapped the entire lunar surface, including the areas around the moon’s north and south poles, which hadn't been mapped by previous lunar missions. Chang’e 1 mapped and analysed the various chemical elements on the lunar surface, as well as probed the lunar soil to find out its features and depth. On its way to the moon, Chang’e 1 also collected data from the space environment between the earth and the moon, such as solar winds and the impact of solar activity. Its sister orbital probe, Chang’e 2, was launched in October 2010 and ended its mission earlier in summer 2011. Its purpose was similar to that of Chang’e 1, although

A manned lunar landing might be possible sometime between 2025-2030 its improved technology made a significant difference in the collected data. Chang’e 1 operated at a 20 0km orbit, whereas Chang’e 2 was flying at only 100km above the moon’s surface. That, in combination with Chang’e 2’s higher resolution camera, led to a better quality and resolution of the data. CLEP’s second phase, which hasn’t been initiated yet, involves sending yet another two spacecraft, namely the lunar landers Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4, both carrying rover s, to the moon. T he six- wheeled rover that Chang’e 3 will carry has been under development since 20 02 in a

laboratory replicating the lunar surface. Its construction was completed last year and is due for launch in 2013. The moon rovers are designed for surface exploration in a limited area. The remote-controlled rovers will work on the lunar surface for three months and transmit videos in real time, collect and analyze soil samples, inspect the Moon’s surface and probe its resources. They also hope to provide the data necessary to determine a good spot to construct a future manned moon base. The third phase of the lunar exploration program is planned for 2017, and consists of an automated sample return. The aim of this mission, which will be carried out with Chang’e 5, is to collect up to 2kg of lunar samples and return them to Earth. After all this extraterrestrial probing and sampling, when is the first Chinese person due to take one small step for man and a giant leap for the People’s Republic on the moon? Alas, a manned lunar landing is still a bit away, it is estimated that such a journey might be possible sometime between 2025-2030.

Will Red China be First to Reach the Red Planet? If you think that China would settle with the moon, think again. Deep space exploration is the next step. In 2007 China signed an agreement with Russia for a joint ChineseRussian exploration of Mars, the biggest space collaboration bet we en the t wo nations. And, interestingly, it is scheduled for launch in November this year. China’s space probe, Yinghuo 1, will be sent to Mars together with the Russian spacecraft Fobos-Grunt. Yinghuo 1 is designed for a t wo year mission. The journey from Earth to Mars will take between 10 and 11.5 months, after which Yinghuo 1 is expected to go into orbit around Mars for one year. The probe will, amongst other things, investigate the plasma environment and magnetic field around the planet, observe Martian sand storms, measure ion escape, and possibly even take a picture or two to send home to the family. There are also plans to upgrade the lunar probe space crafts for future Mars explorations, and make the probes ‘smart’ enough to correct mistakes and navigate into Martian orbit by themselves. A signal between our red cosmic neighbour and our own terrestrial realm takes about 20 minutes to transmit; independent probes that can take care of their own business are essential, since transmitting information and commands from Earth would just take too long to repair any damages or manoeuvre the space craft in time. A few more kink s needs to be sor ted out before deep space exploration can become truly successful. China is currently constructing a monitoring network for the heavens, with large-calibre antennas and communication facilities. This network will have two monitoring stations when it’s done- one in China, which is supposed to be completed in 2012, and one in South

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America, which will be completed in 2016. It could be possible to send the first humans to Mars and other space destinations within two decades. If China accelerates its current development of space technologies and gets an upper hand over other nations’ space programs, there is a real chance that the first person on Mars could be Chinese.

Taking the Lead? China may have had a slow start, but it has been given the opportunity to learn from the earlier experiences of other nations’ space explorations, which are invaluable to China’s own experiences and technology. Eve n w h e re China ha s imi t ate d w hat American and Soviet space programs did back in the day, they’ve done it with new, modernized systems that can match the space hardware which the United States, Europe and Russia will be using in the near future. China is standing on the verge of launching its first space station, and is ready to make

The Chinese station… will become the only permanent human presence in space

way for future spacecraft and expanding space programs while, at the same time, N A S A is cl o sing d ow n t h e U. S .'s 3 0 year space shuttle program. The U.S. is lacking funding for their space missions, which gives China a golden opportunity not only to catch up with, but possibly surpass the U.S., as well as Russia, in terms of space exploration. While China’s plans for future space missions are expanding, the international community’s programs, especially in the U.S.’s, are declining. A round 2020, when China intends to launch its space station, the International

Space Station (ISS) will be decommissioned. The ISS is a 420 ton heavy station, jointly constructed by the U.S., Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. Unless the nations running the ISS manage to launch a replacement for the current space station, the Chinese station, albeit much smaller, will become the only permanent human presence in space; it might even turn into the de facto international space station. As it looks now, other nations are starting to take their equipment out of the sky, whilst China keeps putting brand new hardware and technology up there. The space newbie seems to be taking the lead.

Timeline of  China’s  Space  Exploration 1956: China starts the development of the first ballistic missile program, which they called the first Twelve-Year Plan for Chinese aerospace. 1957: The Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 becomes the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. 1961: The Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space. 1969: The American team led by Commander Neil Armstrong becomes the first men on the moon. 1986: Russia’s Mir space station is launched. 1998: The first component of the International Space Station (ISS) is launched. 1999: The first unmanned Chinese space craft Shenzhou 1 is launched. 2003: Yang Liwei’s successful space flight aboard the Shenzhou 5 makes China the third country in the world to independently send humans into space. 2007: Chang’e 1, China’s first lunar probe to be put into orbit about the moon, is launched. 2008: Shenzhou 7 is launched, carrying a crew of three which conducted China’s first space walk. 2011: The launch of Tiangong 1, China’s first space station.

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China: A Space Odyssey  
China: A Space Odyssey  

Alex Hoegberg, that's China Zhejiang- "China: A Space Odyseey", September 2011