Category Archives: Space

It Is Rocket Science

China’s second Long March-5 rocket lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, Hainan on July 2. Photo credit: Xinhua

WE DO NOT yet know — and may not for some time — what was the ‘anomaly’ that caused the failure seemingly some 10 minutes after take-off of the new Long March-5 rocket launched on July 2.

Beyond the obvious national embarrassment of any such space programme failure, this particular one is damaging to China’s space programme. How damaging will not be clear until it is known whether the failure lay in the Long March-5 launch vehicle or its Dongfanghong-5 (DFH-5) satellite propulsion system payload.

This was only the second flight of the Long March-5, intended as the first of a family of work-horse heavy-lift launch vehicles for the forthcoming lunar and Mars space programmes that will frame China’s civil and military space programme for the next few decades. The rocket can lift twice the payload of any other Chinese rocket and is on a par with the most powerful launchers the Americans have.

The DFH-5 satellite propulsion system is similarly leading edge in its use of new technologies. It and intended to put the next generation of large geostationary telecoms and earth observation satellites in orbit and control them once there. This one was attached to the new (and heavy) experimental Shijian-18 communications satellite.

Such satellites could be used for a variety of communications services from internet connectivity to aeronautical services, distance learning and telemedicine, all of which will be of used for China’s planned high-tech civil and military development.

Unusually, the launch was covered live on TV. Although coverage ended abruptly and without explanation, authorities were, at least, spared the embarrassment of a catastrophic failure while the rocket was still visible to the cameras. However, it was a powerful reminder that space flight is dangerous, difficult and complex. It is rocket science.


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China’s Space Bill

This screen shot taken on June 26, 2012 shows the Chinese astronauts who are conducting scientific tests in Tiangong-1 space lab module waving hands in Tiangong-1. Chinese President Hu Jintao came to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center on Tuesday and talked with the astronauts. (Xinhua)

China will have spent 39 billion yuan ($6.1 billion) on its manned space missions between the program’s launch in 1992 and the end of next year, according to Wu Ping, a space program spokesman quoted in the Beijing Times. Half of that was spent in the period up to 2005, the year of the Shenzhou-6 mission. The rest has gone on the subsequent flights that will culminate in Shenzhou-10’s mission next year. The photo above shows the three astronauts on the current mission, Shenzhou-9, aboard the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module following docking.

By way of comparison, the U.S.’s Apollo program, the one that put Americans on the Moon and first docked a spacecraft  in 1966, was estimated in 1973 to have cost $25.4 billion, which is $135 billion in 2012 dollars. China is making great strides in space, but the numbers suggest how far it still has to go to catch up the U.S. and Russia as space powers.


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China Confirms Plan For Its First Woman In Space

One of the two female astronauts, Liu Yang (L) and Wang Yaping (R), from the Wuhan Flight Unit, will join Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft docking mission with Tiangong-1. State media has confirmed that one of the two female astronauts from the initial seven-strong crew roster for Shenzhou-9’s manned docking mission with the space module, Tiangong-1, will be among the three-person flight crew. They have been named as Liu Yang (on the far left in the photo) and Yang Waping. The two women are military-transport pilots from the PLA-Air Force’s Wuhan flight unit. Both are 34 years old, married and are mothers of one. They joined the space program in 2010.

Reading the runes as best we can, we think that Liu, who holds the more senior rank, major v captain, is said once to have made a successful emergency landing after her cargo plane flew into a flock of pigeons–the stuff of hero myth building– will be the one to get the nod. The first window for the Shenzhou-9 launch is June 16th.

Update: Liu has been confirmed as a member of the flight crew.


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China May Put Its First Woman In Space

The Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft, the Long March-2F rocket, and the escape tower are vertically transferred to the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, June 9, 2012. China will launch its Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft sometime in mid-June to perform the country's first manned space docking mission with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab module, a spokesperson with the country's manned space program said here Saturday. (Xinhua/Wang Jianmin)The steady upward march of China’s space program continued this weekend with the move of a Long March 2F rocket to the launch pad (left) for preparation for the dispatch of a manned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft to dock with China’s orbiting space station module, Tiangong-1, later this month. The unmanned Shenzhou-8 docked with Tiangong-1 last November, China’s first space docking.

There is speculation that the three-person team of astronauts aboard Shenzhou-9 will include what would be China’s woman in space. Two female PLA-Air Force pilots joined the space program in 2010. Both were included in the initial roster of seven astronauts for the Shenzhou-9 flight that was picked in March. The final flight crew and back-ups are in training, but has not yet been announced. Unnamed officials have been quoted as saying it includes a woman. (Update: state media confirm that one of the two will be in the flight crew.)

Docking of spacecraft is a critical skill to master as China races to catch-up with the other space powers. Amid the fanfare about the progress of China’s space program, it is worth recalling that the U.S., for example, first docked spacecraft nearly half a century ago, in 1966.

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The Men On The Moon

The call by Newt Gingrich, the American politician who is seeking the Republican party’s presidential nomination, for the U.S. to establish a Moon base “by the end of my second term”, which, if it happens, would be 2020, throws down a gauntlet to China’s ambitious space program. “It is clearly in [the U.S.’s] interest,” he said, to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere near to matching.”

China’s space scientists have nursed a long-term ambition to establish a lunar base for at least a couple of decades. Gradually, the reality of the country’s space program is catching up. An unmanned mission to the Moon is planned for next year. The recently published white paper on China’s space program publicly confirmed for the first time the scarcely secret goal of following that with a manned mission. It was vague about timing, saying only that the tasks for the next five years include conducting “studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.

As recently as a couple of years ago, space officials were talking about that happening in 2025 to 2030, but more recently 2025 is being mentioned as a by-the-latest date rather than as an at-the-earliest one, with a Moon base to follow by 2030. That coincidentally is the date Japan has pencilled in for setting up a manned Moon base.

Whether the Chinese, even if they got there before the Japanese (or the Russians who have similar ambitions), would now find the Americans already there is the new question. Certainly, if Americans put their minds to it they could pull it off, just as an earlier generation responded to President John F. Kennedy’s call in the face of the Soviet Union putting a man in orbit around the Earth to, within a decade, land an American on the Moon and bring him home. Whether Americans today have the optimism and the money is another matter.

NASA has Bush-era plans it can dust off, plans the Obama administration scaled back because of cost. Some U.S. legislators have called for NASA astronauts to return to the Moon for first time since 1972 by 2022. Gingrich proposes to involve the private sector, including in the development of space tourism and manufacturing, and to spur innovation and technological breakthroughs with both civilian and military applications. Yet eight years would be a tight deadline to pull off a mission of such complexity, regardless of how neatly it dovetails with election-campaign rhetoric. For one, a heavy lift rocket would have to be developed.

There is also the little matter of Gingrich both being nominated to run and then winning the Presidency. President Obama has expressed more interest in going to Mars than returning to the Moon.

The space world has long debated the relative scientific value of manned versus unmanned space exploration and whether returning to the Moon is a diversion from a grander goal of interplanetary travel. One alternative to having humans living on the Moon, or perhaps a first step towards that, would be to establish an unmanned lunar base. While that could be an adjunct to the International Space Station, Japan’s space agency has a plan to have a small but permanent automated base on the Moon run by humanoid robots by 2020. What odds China’s space officials are now looking at what more they could do with the robots they are planning to send to the Moon in 2017 to gather lunar samples if they left some behind?

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China’s Moon Dreams

That a long-term ambition of Beijing’s space program is to put a Chinese on the Moon has been as badly a kept secret as the PLA-Navy’s wish to establish a carrier fleet. This Bystander noted in 2010, as China launched its second lunar probe, intended to test technologies that will allow it to land and return an unmanned mission on the Moon in 2013 (see artists impression below), that 2025 to 2030 had been pencilled in for a manned flight. The recently published white paper on China’s space program publicly confirms the goal but adds nothing to the potential timing, saying only that the tasks for the next five years include conducting “studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”.

Only a dozen people, all Americans, have put foot on the Moon. The most recent were there in December 1972. Like the U.S. and the old Soviet Union before it, China sees its space program as both fostering the development of advanced technologies for military and civilian use, and as a statement of its emergence as a world power. The illustration above from state media suggests that China’s space scientists may have more than dreams of just getting one of their countrymen to the Moon and back again dancing in their heads.

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Critical Next Step For China’s Space Program

A schematic image of China's proposed space station, for which the docking of Shenzhou-8 with the unmanned orbiting space laboratory, Tiangong-1, is an essential first step.

When China sent up the first building block of its space station in September, it was always the case that the second module wouldn’t be far behind. Shenzhou-8 will get blasted off on Tuesday to join–if all goes well–the unmanned space laboratory, Tiangong-1, already in orbit. (Update: the launch was successful; docking is planned for no later than Thursday. Done. Check). Shenzhous -9 and -10 are to follow next year. The drawing above is a representation of what the space station will look like once it is fully assembled. The part closest to the bottom left looks like a Shenzhou module.

Chinese space launches are now routine, but docking in space is new for its space program, and a critical skill to master as it races to catch-up with the other space powers. The U.S., for example, first docked spacecraft in 1966. It will take a decade for the space station to be built out fully and astronauts are likely to be aboard from next year. But none of that will be possible without successful docking in space. This docking is running six months behind its original schedule, but China’s space engineers, who will be orchestrating the docking from the ground, know how important it is to get this essential step right–so essential that they will perform the operation twice on this mission, docking, then undocking and docking again.

State media is again giving the docking great fanfare.

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