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A Chinese Space Station by 2020: Heavenly Palace

Monday, December 5th, 2011
chinese rocket

China has successfully launched its first module Tiangong-1, known as ‘Heavenly Palace’, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, beginning a new era in the Chinese Space program. The future of Chinese space activity will now revolve around completing the space station. A day before the National Day Celebrations, the assigned rocket Long March blasted off majestically into the night sky, taking the hopes of the entire nation with it. As scientists watched anxiously, within minutes of its launch at 9.16pm, Long March safely deposited Tiangong-1, the first module of the space program, into its correct orbit, just 350 kilometers away from the earth.

The First Docking Mission for China

The successful launch of Tiangong-1 has once again established China’s prowess at achieving its space initiatives. A very important capability requirement of its ambitious space program is the docking facility, which is critical to the completion of China’s planned Space Station by 2020.

By the time Tiangong-1 will reach a cycle of 343-kilometer orbit days, the Shenzhou VIII will be launched; this will be in November. Once Shenzhou VIII completes two days of orbit, the two craft will be set to rendezvous and dock for the first time.

The two will then decouple after twelve days. The second rendezvous and docking will be repeated some time later as well. Shenzhou VIII will then return to Earth and it is projected to land in the region of Mongolia.

Tiangong-1 will remain in orbit until next year, and two more rendezvous and docking missions will be executed. At a news conference after the successful launch, Wu Ping clarified that the technologies developed during the process of this mission will direct future lunar landings and deep space exploration. This is China’s feasibility studies on manned moon landings.

Other Programs of this Mission

This will soon be followed by an unmanned Shenzhou VIII spaceship in November due to dock with the Tiangong-1. Next year, two more similar missions will send up the rest of the program modules as well as the astronauts, finally establishing Tiangong-1 as a space lab by 2016.

Once China completes this mission, it will become only the third country in the world to possess advanced capabilities such as rendezvous and dock technology, after the Soviet Union and United States.

History of the Space Station Mission

Beginning in 1992, Chinese space scientists proposed and sought approval from the government for a manned space program. After approval, the mission was granted 35 billion Yuan, equivalent to US$5.47 billion. The project was commissioned for execution in three stages:

1. 1992-2005

At this stage of the program, about 20 billion Yuan (US$3 billion) were spent in launching six Shenzhou spaceships to develop the basic infrastructure for a space station. In this stage of the mission, a thoroughly planned system for transport of astronauts between earth and space was established.

2. 2005- 2011

In the present second phase, at a cost of 15 billion Yuan (US$2.3 billion), capabilities of rendezvous and docking, as well as other Shenzhou VII projects, were successfully launched as logical steps towards building the capabilities for a future space station. This stage has been very critical to the success of this mission. Four key technology capabilities need to be achieved to successfully build the space station within the scope of this mission.

First, extravehicular activity has been achieved with the successful completion of the 2008 Shenzou VII launch. Second, rendezvous and docking technology is in various stages of achievement. Third, establishing the cargo spaceships to ferry supplies to the space lab. Fourth, to establish the technologies required for sustained life on space labs. The main concerns to be addressed are recycling air and water while living on the space station.

3. 2011-2020

In the last and final stage, the longest period of the mission is in building the 60-ton space station and completing it by 2020.

Goals of the Space Mission

The chief designer of this manned space program is Zhou Jianping, who has described in detail the goals of this mission – in particular, the space lab and a space station by 2020. The space lab is to serve the twin purposes of conducting experiments as well as achieving breakthroughs in materials studies and biological medicines. In interviews to leading newspapers such as China Daily, he comments that, “several of the experiments made in the microgravity of space lead to unexpected results.” Illustrating this, the chief designer goes on to explain that on the earth’s surface, gas and liquid do not mix, but they react spontaneously and mix naturally in space.

On the ultimate goal of the space mission, the chief designer has this to say: “The primary purpose of China’s manned space station is to peacefully explore space, and through it, serve mankind.”

Some Doubts Raised About the Role of the Military in Space Mission

As with all other programs implemented in China, there is a military presence. However, the exact role or the significance of its participation in the space program is unclear, which has resulted in many misconceptions.

Commenting on these negative issues, the Ministry of National Defense spokesman Geng Yansheng says that, “The military plays a pivotal co-coordinating role. The space program is a very massive mission and requires close co-ordination across all the departments and agencies. Since the military has better organizational capacity with respect to missions of this nature, their involvement is important as per international norms.”

The spokesperson clearly specified that China is definitely not looking at creating a war zone in space, and they are very clear in their intent of keeping the space zone peaceful.

China’s Future Space Programs – Some Unmanned Missions

In addition to this manned mission, China successfully launched two orbiters around the moon in 2007 and in 2010. Unmanned missions for the future also include a lunar landing in 2013 and a mission to bring back lunar samples in 2017.

Lunar Exploration Program

China has always coveted the role of key explorer of the moon. Manned lunar missions are scheduled to be achieved by 2025, with a moon rock sample to be obtained for analysis by 2017. The mission is called the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program and is denoted by a nascent moon with a pair of human footsteps.

In fact, the success of the lunar program, especially the stage of establishing a lunar base, is critical to the next phase of China’s ambitious space program to Mars and to other planets of the galaxy.

The Lunar Exploration program has four phases. In the first phase, two unmanned lunar orbital probes were launched via the CZ-3A in 2007. In the second phase, 2012 will see the first moon landing of Rovers; in the third phase, which is likely to commence in 2017, using the CZ-5/E, two ambitious plans include moon landing as well as collecting a rock sample. The fourth phase, in 2024, the CZ-7 will launch a manned mission on a permanent basis.

Next Big Mission Leads to Mars

China has several ambitious plans to explore Mars and planets beyond that. In July 2006, the China National Space Administration began a deep exploration of Mars over the following five years.

The first Mars exploration program would be completed between 2014 to 2033 and later in 2040-2060. An orbiter named Yinghuo-1 and the Phobos-Grunt, launched along with Russia, will allow rover landers as well as manned missions in the near future.

In fact, to make exploration of Mars safer, a weather forecast system is planned to be completed in 2012. Satellites belonging to the Kuafu series will be placed at Lagrangian Point L1 will assist in this aspect.

China’s Space Projects in the Pipelines

The government of China proposes several short term and long terms programs, which are ambitious and when achieved will certainly reiterate China’s power. Some of China’s immediate goals include setting up a remote space sensing system, along with the study of microgravity, life sciences, astronomy and space materials. Comprehensive satellite navigation positioning systems, as well as a fullfledged telecommunications network, are on the anvil.

China is also excited about exploring the commercial aspects of satellite launch services. It is actively exploring the avenues of providing launch services for satellites from other countries. Given the great physical expanse of the country and the ideal launch locations, the possibilities of successful launches are very high.

China’s successful launch of Tiangong-I is only a spectacular start to a long list of space missions that the country intends to achieve. Its technical capabilities are being developed across all sectors and China’s Heavenly Palaces, when completed, will be another successfully completed space mission, which will help it to develop a host of applications through the knowledge gained during exploration.

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