Bengaluru: Moon – check. Mars – check. Crewed missions – check. Its own space station – first module launched, work underway to launch operations by next year. On the agenda: Asteroids, Jupiter by 2035, and Uranus — at the far end of the solar system — after 2040.
China’s ambitious space programme has made giant strides in recent years. In its latest feat, China became only the third country to perform a successful soft landing on Mars when its Zhurong rover reached the Red Planet this week.
Over the past few years, China has also performed a soft landing on the Moon (Chang’e 3) as part of its lunar exploration programme Chang’e. Only the US and former Soviet Union have pulled this off before.
China is the only nation apart from the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union to bring back lunar rocks to Earth (Chang’e 5), and the first country ever to land a rover (Chang’e 4) on the far side of the moon — a mission it pulled off in 2019.
The upcoming Chinese space station is another manifestation of the country’s ambitions to go deeper into the universe. After a decade of tests and two prototypes, the country launched the first core module of the space station into orbit earlier this year.
However, this particular mission landed China in a spot of controversy because it did not correctly deorbit the core booster stage of the rocket that launched the module. Amid doubts about where exactly the debris from the 18-tonne rocket would land, many voiced concerns about the aggressive nature of Chinese expansion into space.
The rocket finally fell into the Indian Ocean off the Maldives on 9 May, with much of it burnt during re-entry into the Earth.
The Chinese space programme was initiated in 1956, when the country’s first rocket research institution was founded. It launched its first rocket — carrying white mice — into space on 19 July 1964.
Its first crewed mission took place in 2003, making it the third country — again after the US and the USSR, the protagonists of the Cold War space race — to carry out an independent manned space flight.
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Tiangong-3 — a Chinese space station
China’s latest launch for its space station did not come without prototypes.
The Tiangong (translating to ‘Heaven’s Palace’) programme, which began in 1992, is China’s attempt to create a Soviet-style space station along the lines of Mir, a historic mission that stayed in space for 15 years.
The space station will be assembled and operated entirely by one nation, unlike the International Space Station (ISS).
After planning and construction, the first prototype, Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011. Once in orbit, it was visited multiple times by China’s Shenzhou modules, which carried crew members for test flights and laboratory experiments.
After extending its two-year mission multiple times, the Chinese authorities finally conceded in 2016 that they had lost control of the station. It slowly decayed in its orbit, ultimately burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere in 2018.
China launched the Tiangong-2 prototype, a much more sophisticated orbiting laboratory, in 2016. This spacecraft, too, was visited by both crew and cargo vehicles, and was deorbited as planned, with controlled re-entry, in 2019.
Currently, China is assembling the Tiangong-3 space station, which will be the final functional version. It will weigh 66,000 kg and begin operations by 2022 at an orbit of about 350-450 km.
The completed module will be T-shaped, and is expected to be operational for 10 years. Its design contains multiple modules, including the Tianhe core module, with science labs. The dockable Shenzhou crew capsule or lifeboat and the Tianzhou robotic cargo ship will also be a part of the station on either ends of the core module.
The country launched Tianhe, which translates to ‘Harmony of the Heavens’, on 28 April atop a Long March-5B Y2 rocket, from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in the Hainan province. The cylindrical module is the largest spacecraft China has ever developed so far, and will make up the central core of the space station.
The core module contains the main living area for the future crew of the space station. It is 16.6m long and 4.2m wide, with life support. It can support six astronauts, and will provide power and propulsion to the station.
To finish assembling the station, China plans to perform 10 more launches over this year and the next one. These will include two more module launches, four crewed missions, and four cargo vessels.
The Chinese National Space Agency has confirmed that the next launch will be that of the Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft in May, followed by the Shenzhou-12 crewed craft in June. Three astronauts will stay in orbit for three months aboard the Shenzhou-12.
In September, the Tianzhou-3 cargo craft will be launched, followed by Shenzhou-13 with three astronauts who will stay in the Tianhe module for six months.
In 2022, there will be two more crewed spacecraft with three astronauts each, who will stay in the module for six months.
Designed to function for 10 years, the Tiangong-3 is expected to function for at least 15 with good maintenance.
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The Moon and Mars
China has accomplished two interplanetary landings that only the former Soviet Union and the US have done so far: On the surface of the Moon and Mars.
The Chang’e (pronounced ‘Chung-uh’) missions are named after the Moon goddess Chang’e in Chinese mythology. The programme was launched in 2004, and has so far spawned five successful missions.
Chang’e-1 and 2 were orbital missions, while Chang’e-3 and 4 were lander-rovers. These four made up phases 1 and 2 of the programme. Phase 3 was sample-return, carried out by Chang’e-5.
Three more missions are expected to follow as part of Phase 4, which focuses on building a lunar research station.
Chang’e-6, to be launched in 2023 or 2024, will study the lunar composition, strength, subsurface geography, topography, and more, to finalise a landing site for a station. This is also a sample-return mission, overlapping with Phase 5.
Chang’e-7, to be launched in 2023, will head to the South Pole and conduct a study on resources. It will consist of an orbiter, a lander, a rover, and a small flying probe. The mission will be one among many heading to the lunar South Pole over the upcoming years, including those from India and Japan.
Chang’e-8, expected to take off in 2027, will attempt to develop and extract natural resources in-situ on the Moon. It is expected to include payloads like a 3D printer and a sealed biological experiment.
It will consist of a lander, rover, and a flying robot, and will operate as a technology demonstrator for the construction of a lunar science base.
China’s Mars mission is called Tianwen (‘Questions to Heaven’) after a classic poem. Its orbiter was among three that reached Mars this February. Once in orbit, it surveyed the Utopia Planitia landing site in the northern hemisphere for a couple of months until the Zhurong rover landed this month. The CNSA has since released the first photos taken by the lander.
The astro-biolgoical rover will study the geology and topography of Mars, as well as its atmosphere and magnetism.
China also plans to send another lander to Mars in 2028, and perform a sample-return mission.
Deep space and science missions
Asteroids are on China’s radar as it plans a number of other deep space missions. A proposed mission, called ZhengHe, will collect a sample from the asteroid 469219 Kamoʻoalewa, which orbits near Earth, and drop it to Earth before heading to the asteroid 311P/PANSTARRS for a year-long flyby study.
The country is also planning to send an orbiter to Jupiter by 2030, expected to reach the planet by 2035. The proposed mission to Jupiter is called Gan De, and will study the magnetic field and the atmosphere of Jupiter, as well as the surface, ice, and tectonics of the largest Jovian moon Ganymede.
There is also a proposed mission to Uranus, that will be aimed to arrive at its destination around 2040.
Apart from these, China is planning five deep space probes that will be scientific in nature, to be developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. These will study a wide variety of Earth, solar, and space phenomena.
These include a space-weather observatory mission in collaboration with the European Space Agency, called the Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE), a global Water Cycle Observation Mission (WCOM), the Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Thermosphere mission (MIT), the X-ray mission scanning for exotic high-energy phenomena called the Einstein Probe (EP), and the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory (ASO-S) to study solar eruptions and other explosive phenomena on the surface of the Sun.
There are other scientific missions in the pipeline, including the X-ray Timing and Polarization (XTP) probe to test the fundamental laws of physics in extreme space conditions, and the Search for Terrestrial Exo-Planets (STEP) to find Earth-like exoplanets close to the Sun, and a probe to study solar magnetism called the Solar Polar ORbit Telescope (SPORT) mission.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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