China accelerates space research and development
BY CRAIG COVAULT
Posted: December 29, 2009
China in 2010 will be engaged in the most ambitious and diverse manned and unmanned space system research and development surge since the U.S. and Soviet Union squared off in the 1960s space race.
In addition to maturing its manned program for ambitious flight operations in 2011 the Chinese will also launch its second lunar orbiter mission and complete development of a nuclear powered common lunar lander bus that by 2013 is to support Chinese lunar rover operations then unmanned lunar sample return flights by 2017.
The Chinese say they hope to use nuclear power for electricity and thermal control of the lunar bus with the idea that a rover can use its own solar arrays, but also return to the bus to recharge its batteries when exploring the local landing site area.
The Chinese are now also more openly discussing manned lunar concepts, although no Chinese manned lunar program has been approved. They are also open to any and all ideas of space cooperation with the U. S.
Most next year's work will be on the ground, however, as China develops new infrastructure and flight hardware that will be launched starting in 2011 and beyond. This includes a whole new Long March 5 booster class to launch 25 ton payloads.
That "ground" work will likely also involve major and possibly difficult diplomatic space cooperation talks with the U.S. One area of focus could be centered around the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to be carried to the International Space Station on one of the final flights of the space shuttle to the International Space Station.
An international payload to begin with, it has substantial Chinese intellectual and hardware content and will be a cutting edge tool in astronomy to specifically hunt for the invisible cold dark matter that is such a major factor in cosmology today.
Except for the Chang'e 2 second lunar orbiter mission to the Moon that is to launch in October 2010, major Chinese launch operations in 2010 are expected to be fairly routine, with the dominate mission the launch of as many as six Biedou navigation satellites.
China wrapped up 2009 with the launch of two dual use military reconnaissance/civil remote sensing spacecraft, one with an optical sensor and the second most likely carrying a synthetic aperture radar.
The Chinese have since 2006 launched one each of these recon pair with the radar spacecraft like Yaogan 8 launched Dec. 15 on board a Long March 4C fired southward from the Taiyuan polar mission launch site about 300 mi. southwest of Beijing. The People's Liberation Army designation for the radar spacecraft is the Jian Bing-5 model while the optical versions are designated Jian Bing 6 versions by the PLA.
As in the past, the Yaogan 7 electro optical imaging half of the pair was launch from the Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi Desert Dec. 8 into about a 400 mi. orbit on a Long March 2C.
The Long March 4C for radar missions is a structurally upgraded version of the 4B which had been used earlier to launch these spacecraft. The Dec. 15 flight also carried the Hope 1 mini satellite which is being used as an educational project for Chinese science and engineering students.
Chinese small and mini spacecraft carry great technological importance in overall Chinese military spacecraft development, according to Andrew S. Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island. Thousands of personnel are involved in overall Chinese small satellite development because the Chinese see these small payloads as a way to overcome technology shortfalls versus the U.S. They can be easily reconstituted if lost in space and are cheap to build.
While the U.S. is one competitor in China's major new R&D initiative, the Chinese believe they are as much competing against themselves.
Over the last 20 years their space program has sprung from a largely agrarian economy to a position now where China dominates the Pacific Basin ahead of Japan in space and is reaching for even greater achievements over both its western and eastern horizons.
The result of heavy R&D in especially 2010 when a full range of new Chinese booster and spacecraft capabilities, are developed, many of them military or with geopolitical objectives.
The projects all have links into the education system and as such are also designed to provide a high tech math and science educational foundation to hundreds of thousands of young Chinese to propel China to new global superpower status by mid century. Examples of this enormous new effort are:
No manned flights are planned for 2010, but extensive work is underway to develop rendezvous and docking hardware and avionics for an unmanned docking test between Shenzhou 8 and free flying Tiangong 1 module launched separately.
In addition China is moving ahead with development of a lunar rover and the lander weighing nearly 3,000 lb. at landing. The nuclear-powered lander in particular will act as a systems test for many elements of a Chinese lunar surface sample return mission that could be launched about 2017. Plutonium 238 which generates heat when it decays will be used to produce electricity if the Chinese stay with this form of power through to the end of development.