Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center – Thirty years ago, the Chinese government launched a secretive space program that included a major goal of building a space station by 2020.
At the time, China was 11 years after sending its first astronaut into space, and its space efforts were going through a rough patch: Chinese rockets failed twice in 1991, 1992, 1995 and 1996. The worst failure occurred in 1996 when a rocket tipped sideways, went the wrong direction, and exploded 22 seconds after launch, spilling debris and burning fuel across a Chinese village and killing at least 63 people were killed or injured.
While some countries’ ambitious space programs are years behind schedule, China completed the orbital assembly of the Tiangong space station in late October, just 22 months behind schedule. On November 29, the Shenzhou 15 mission was launched from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center deep in the Gobi, carrying three astronauts to the space station and began to permanently station the outpost.
These manned spaceflight achievements, combined with recent space missions to the Moon and Mars, are further evidence that China is running a steady space marathon rather than a head-to-head space race with the United States.China’s space program is struggling to meet its long-term goals For the Nov. 29 launch, foreign media made rare visits to China’s heavily fortified desert rocket base — including a lengthy New York Times interview with a top Chinese space official.
Pentagon August Forecast China could surpass US space capabilities as soon as 2045.
“I think it’s entirely possible that they’ll catch up and overtake us, absolutely possible,” said Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno, chief of staff of the U.S. Space Force. At a meeting in Sydney the day before the Shenzhou 15 launch“The progress they’ve made is astounding — astonishingly fast.”
China’s program left the starting line in 1986, decades after the US-Soviet space race had reached its peak. At that time, China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping, approved Project 863, a scientific and technological development plan that included a manned spacecraft program.
In 1992, the 921 project began to speed up. “The goal at the time was to complete the construction of China’s space station around 2020,” said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned spaceflight project.
Despite initial embarrassment over rockets that kept exploding instead of reaching space, China picked up the pace in the ensuing years. American companies are looking for a low-cost way to send satellites into space, helping China solve its rocket mass problem. In 2003, Boeing finally agreed to pay a $32 million fine for its acquisition of Hughes Aerospace Communications for violating US arms export controls.
Congress eventually banned US space agencies in 2011 from spending any money on space cooperation with China, except in limited circumstances. The ban, enacted in response to concerns over technology theft and human rights abuses, has blocked any chance of China being invited to join the International Space Station.
Frank Wolf, the retired Republican congressman who pushed the legislation through, said in a recent email that he still believes the legislation is necessary. “At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be working with China,” he said.
China has also drawn extensively on Russian expertise over the years, dating back to the establishment of Jiuquan in 1958 as a military base for the development of China’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. The spacecraft carrying the Shenzhou mission is very similar to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Space officials in the country say every part of their spacecraft is made in China. But they acknowledged the benefits of years of cooperation with their northern neighbor.
“China’s manned spaceflight has also had many exchanges with Russia in the development process – 100% localization does not mean that there is no exchange and cooperation,” Mr. Zhou said.
China is now pursuing its own plans and is not cooperating with Russia to build a new space station.
Space has come a long way in recent years, with six Chinese space officials outlining their plans for the next few years in interviews at the launch center, which sits in a vast expanse of frozen gray gravel in northwest China where launches take place for nearly four weeks. hours drive from the nearest large town.
The Tiangong space station weighs nearly 100 tons. That’s only slightly higher than the U.S. Skylab, launched in 1973, and lower than the Mir space station, which the Soviet Union began assembling in space in 1986.
State media portrays Tiangong to the Chinese public as a three-bedroom apartment in the sky. Still, it’s much smaller than the International Space Station, about 450 tons And there is sleeping space for seven people.
What the Chinese space station may lack in heft, Chinese officials are trying to make up for with effective space management — a polite term for crowded astronauts and experiments. But Western space experts also say the ISS is bigger than it needs to be, especially given the miniaturization of computers and other scientific equipment since development began in 1994.
Beginning with the arrival of the three astronauts on Shenzhou 15 on November 30, China now plans to have at least three astronauts continuously occupy the space station. This expands to six astronauts during their one-week overlap every six months when replacement crew members arrive — still less than the usual seven-crew complement of the ISS.
Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said that the Shenzhou 15 astronauts will first conduct equipment debugging on the newly built space station. They will “complete the unlocking, installation and commissioning of 15 scientific experiment racks, and carry out more than 40 space science and technology experiments in the fields of space science research and application, space medicine, and space technology,” he said, without providing details.
Zhou said that through efficient space management, the number of experimental racks provided by the Chinese space station will be four-fifths of that of the International Space Station. One of these experiments will be an extremely cold atomic clock.
“This could work well in fundamental physics research, such as non-Newtonian gravity and gravitational redshift research,” he said.
As soon as next year, the space station will also have a single-launch telescope — the Skyseeker Telescope, orbiting nearby to observe the universe in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths — which, in many ways, is the answer to NASA’s 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. more complex version.
“The feature of the survey telescope is that it can conduct a large-scale survey of the sky – we plan to complete 42% of the survey area within 10 years,” Mr. Zhou said. “We expect it to achieve some very important results, especially as our telescope should be unique in the world at ultraviolet wavelengths.”
Ji said that in the next few months, the Shenzhou 15 team will conduct three to four more spacewalks. They will also use a new robotic cargo airlock that allows scientific experiments to be placed in the icy vacuum of space.
“It will reach very low temperature levels so that we can study some very important phenomena in fundamental physics, such as Bose-Einstein condensates,” said Zhou, referring to the The condensed state of matter that will only appear under the circumstances. zero.
Despite limited direct cooperation, Chinese officials say they have learned important lessons from watching their American counterparts. Chinese officials, for example, are glad they didn’t follow NASA’s early decision in the 1970s to build large but expensive space planes like the Space Shuttle.
Instead, they were impressed by the work of Elon Musk’s rocket company.
“In 2009, when I first learned about SpaceX at a conference in the US, I was amazed: I had never heard of this company before in the US, how did it grow into such a big company so quickly ,” Mr. Zhang said. Zhou said.
By watching SpaceX, Chinese space officials see the value in building reusable rockets and spacecraft.
“The space shuttle is very complex,” Zhou said, while the capsules used by China and SpaceX “are relatively technically easier to ensure reliability and safety, and are also more economical.” He later asserted, “In a few years, we will It will be able to realize re-entry module reuse for our new generation of spacecraft.”
The development of reusable rocket technology in China has become even more important after the international criticism of its Long March 5B rocket. In sending each of the three modules of the Tiangong space station into orbit, China allowed the rockets’ massive core boosters to fall uncontrollably to Earth.
R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, said in an interview that he had encouraged China to be “more cautious about uncontrolled re-entry of large rocket bodies.”
China angry at criticism of Long March 5B core booster. One of them crashed in West Africa during a test flight in 2020, causing damage, but so far there have been no casualties in the rocket stages. At least one more rocket launch is planned for 2023, when the space-seeking telescope will be in orbit.
Chinese officials said they wanted not only to avoid an uncontrolled re-entry, but also to reuse the rocket.
“We will make reuse an important technical goal of our project – reuse will bring technical challenges, but it will lead to better economics and better development of the aerospace industry,” Mr Zhou said
On Nov. 26, China tested a prototype of a reusable rocket booster that burns liquid oxygen and kerosene, said Rong Yi, chief designer of the Long March 2F launch vehicle that sent the Shenzhou 15 mission into space. Even before this, she said, China had been working hard to develop steering technology to ensure that reusable rockets could land in specific locations.
In addition, He Yu, chief commander of the manned spacecraft system of the China Academy of Aerospace Technology, said that in May 2020, China had tested a prototype of a reusable spacecraft capsule.
Efforts to develop a reusable spacecraft are in parallel with official Chinese plans to send astronauts to the moon.They haven’t released an exact timeline, but have previously suggested it won’t happen later than 2030.
Both Mr. Ji and Mr. Zhou said that a lot of work has been done on the manned lunar lander.
“These works have laid a solid foundation for the manned lunar exploration project,” Mr. Ji said at a news conference at the Jiuquan launch center, before citing Chinese mythology: “I believe that the Chinese people’s dream of the moon is in the near future, Jiuchongtian will come true.”
But putting a man on the moon is already done. Sending a man to Mars is an even bigger prize for China. It focuses on shortening the duration of such travel, perhaps using nuclear propulsion instead of conventional rocket engines. Officials also determined that any journey would be a round trip and that all astronauts would return alive and in good health.
“Technically, it is theoretically feasible, but there are great engineering challenges because the scale is very large. According to the current technology, we estimate that it will take at least 900 days to drive,” Mr. Zhou said.
With nuclear power, the trip could be shortened to 500 days, he said, but did not predict whether China would adopt this approach.
Huang Weifen, chief designer of China’s astronaut program, said she was looking for ways to ensure the astronauts would stay healthy during the 500-day journey.
“This is another qualitative leap in flight—a very big challenge to people’s medical problems, psychological problems and livelihood security,” she said.
Despite all these difficulties, China is determined to stick to its long-term space program.
“Landing on the moon and landing on Mars are both very important advances in the development of human civilization,” Mr. Zhou said. “We can gradually understand and realize its further value. But its role in the development of our human civilization is huge, so it is worth our efforts – worth fighting for.”
Li You Research contributions from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.