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China accelerates space research and development

Posted: December 29, 2009

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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:

  • New Spaceport:  Development of a major new spaceport is underway on Hainan Island. It is similar in concept to the Kennedy Space Center for the launch of a large new line of Chinese boosters. Major construction will take place following an official ground breaking in 2009.

  • New Heavy Boosters: Development is underway on a new Long March 5 and 6 booster series similar in concept to the U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, where the core stage can have various numbers of strap-on boosters and different upper stage configurations. The new vehicles are completing development and to some extent resemble the United Launch Alliance Delta 4. First launch will be 2013-2014.

  • Military Satellites: A whole new range of large Chinese military spacecraft is also under development.

  • New Rocket Engines: Development of new oxygen/hydrogen and oxygen/kerosene rocket engines and overall propulsion systems for the new launcher fleet is being completed.

  • New Manned Spacecraft Development: Preparation of additional Shenzhou manned transports and new target spacecraft will be underway in China's secretive manned program run by the People's Liberation Army.

    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.

  • Chinese station: By late this decade China plans to launch a modular space station, starting at about 20 tons then growing to three times that size. The vehicle would be comparable to the latter stages of Russia's Mir.

  • Chinese Lunar Missions: China is opening a new lunar spacecraft development facility. The Chang'e 2 orbiter to be launched in October will utilize the backup spacecraft for the highly successful Chang'e 1 lunar orbiter that has finished its lunar mapping mission and crashed onto the moon. Chang'e 2 will carry more sensitive imaging systems.

    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.

  • Pegasus type launcher: China may fly in 2010 a winged space launcher carried aloft on the belly of a Bison bomber. The "Shenlong" winged space vehicle, however, worries U.S. military analysts because it could be used as an antisatellite (Asat) weapon, secretly flown to the best locations for launch to attack U.S. satellites in a crisis.

  • Space Telescope:  China's Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT)  to perform the most sensitive all sky survey in X-rays ever done is completing development and planned for launch in 2012. It will carry four different X-ray receivers to look at different X-ray wavelengths and is expected to find 1,000 new X rays sources in deep space including black holes and neutron stars.  Weighing about 2,000 lb. it will use some of China's most advanced technology.