Cold, arid and barren, the Gobi Desert stretches across a vast chunk of Inner Mongolian nothingness. But for the Chinese space programme it is a land of hopes and dreams. Since the creation of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre there in 1958, the dust bowl has served as the departure point for many of the country’s space projects, including last Saturday’s lift-off of the Shenzhou-13 spacecraft, with three astronauts on board.
The mission is one of 38 launches that the Chinese have mobilised this year (not counting the efforts of privately-controlled enterprises). But it has grabbed the most attention, with US news channel CNN describing it as “historic”.
There are a number of reasons why. First, the three crew – Zhai Zhigang, 55, Wang Yaping, 41, and Ye Guangfun, 41 – are scheduled to stay in space for six months, the longest stint yet for Chinese astronauts.
Second is that Wang, who in 2013 became the second Chinese woman sent to space (see WiC125), will be the first to conduct a spacewalk after joining China’s permanent space station Tiangong, which is still undergoing in-orbit construction.
Third, with Shenzhou-13’s automated link-up with Tiangong’s core module Tianhe at 6:56 am last Saturday, or six hours after the rocket launch, China has demonstrated new mastery of radial docking technology.
The launch of Tianhe into low Earth orbit, or 380 kilometres above the surface, on April 29 was the first step towards the assembly process for the Tiangong space station, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. While Tianhe is orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes, four other missions have been completed, including the delivery of the three-person crew of the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft (who returned to Earth after a three-month sojourn in September) and the docking of two unmanned cargo vessels Tianzhou-2 and -3, which carry fuel, food supplies and equipment.
Over the next six months, Zhai, Wang and Ye will complete the extraordinary tasks of ‘lunar lego’, building out the space station and going out on two to three spacewalks in order to install critical components for a robotic arm that extends beyond the cabin, noted Xinhua. The massive gear will be used to move other objects and modules, which will help in the construction of Tiangong. Among other duties, the trio will also carry out experiments in the fields of medicine and microgravity physics.
If everything goes to plan six more missions will be launched next year, before Tiangong is fully complete. The crew of Shenzhou-14, the next spacecraft to be launched will oversee the docking of two capsules, Mengtian and Wentian, on each side of Tianhe, designed to host scientific experiments. Later Shenzhou-15’s crew will attempt an in-orbit rotation with their predecessors, meaning that Tiangong will be home to six astronauts for the first time, albeit temporarily.
Tiangong is modelled on the Soviet Union’s Mir space station, which was first commissioned in the 1980s and ceased service in 2001. China’s new station is designed to have a total mass of about 100 tonnes, making it a quarter of the size of the International Space Station. But the latter was built (and shared) by 16 countries including the US, Russia, Japan and Germany over a span of 10 years and more than 30 missions. With funding for the aging ISS running until sometime between 2024 and 2028, Tiangong could soon lay claim to being the only permanent human outpost in space.
Nature, a science journal, reported in July that Tiangong is set to host over 1,000 experiments ranging from testing of dark matter and gravitational waves to the growth of cancer and pathogenic bacteria. Although the majority of proposals have links to Chinese researchers, nine were put forward by the United Nations, involving a number of other nations. Poland’s National Centre for Nuclear Research, for instance, is part of a team that is organising an experiment to study gamma-ray bursts.
Perhaps the most important project that Tiangong will support is Xuntian, a space telescope slated for launch in 2024. The plan is to have Xuntian co-orbit Earth along with Tiangong, so that it can be more easily docked for refuelling and technical upgrades.
Xuntian will have a field of view that is 300 times larger than NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope – that’s thanks to a 2.5-gigapixel camera that comes with dozens of detectors. Officials from the Chinese Academy of Sciences claim that Xuntian could survey up to 40% of the observable universe in its lifetime, collecting high-quality data from nearly two billion galaxies in a way that could solve a series of astrophysical mysteries.
“What is truly impressive about China’s space programme is how rapidly it has advanced, on all major fronts, from a pretty low base as recently as the 1990s,” David Burbach, associate professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, told CNN. According to Euroconsult, a space and satellite consultancy, China’s space budget in 2020 reached $8.9 billion, representing 11% of the global total, second to America’s $47.7 billion.
In fact China’s space programme could be traced back as far as 1958, when then Premier Zhou Enlai enlisted the Hangzhou-born but American-educated scientist Qian Xuesen following his expulsion from the US at the height of the Cold War. A contributor to the Manhattan Project and the first director of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab in 1943, Qian brought a wealth of knowledge that helped to develop the rockets that fired China’s first satellite into orbit in 1970 and in 2003 put the country’s first astronaut Yang Liwei in space.
While economic reforms since 1978 have helped China’s space programme to get more traction, impetus has come from the passing of the Wolf Amendment by the US Congress in 2011, which forbids NASA from working with Chinese companies or government agencies on national security grounds. The rule has essentially barred China from participating in the ISS.
On a path of self-reliance, China has grown bolder and more capable in its space ambitions. It made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon (unmanned) with the Yutu-2 rover (see WiC436). In May it sent a six-wheeled, solar-powered rover called Zhurong to Mars, which, according to satellite images, has travelled more than 1,000 metres across the planet’s surface in analysing rocks, dunes and other features. Two days before Shenzhou-13’s lift-off, China’s space scientists also delivered its first solar observation platform, along with 10 other satellites in a single launch, from a site in Shanxi.
The achievements see Russia, which has struggled recently to fund its own space programme, take more interest in joining China’s efforts. In June the two countries unveiled a road map to develop a joint moon base, dubbed the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), which could emerge as a potential rival to the American-led Artemis project. Before the ILRS is ready for crewed visits in 2036, the project will need the development of a host of new technologies including lunar nuclear power, long-range communications systems, moon-based telescopes and resource extraction capabilities.
Meanwhile, China is studying the feasibility of building a space station of at least a kilometre in length, or nearly 10 times the size of the ISS. The idea is that only a space station of that size could create the artificial gravity needed to help stave off the most damaging effects of weightlessness, such as muscle wastage and the loss of bone density – all the more important should astronauts be sent on longer missions to Mars and the Moon.
While China insists that its space programme is civilian in intent, US defence experts link the country’s new aerospace capabilities with military threats. “[The People’s Liberation Army] will continue to integrate space services – such as satellite reconnaissance and positioning, navigation, and timing – and satellite communications into its weapons and command-and-control systems to erode the US military’s information advantage,” a report by America’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned in April.
Reports in the last few days of China’s testing of a hypersonic missile that circled the globe in low-orbit space before speeding towards its target will do little to lessen these concerns.“The simplest way to imagine this new weapon system is to imagine the space shuttle, put a nuclear weapon in the cargo bay and then don’t bother with the landing gear,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told NPR. “The hypersonic weapon launches briefly into orbit, and then it glides back to Earth just like the space shuttle,” he added, “except for when it gets where it’s going, it goes boom.”
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