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Archive for February, 2012

China accelerates space program plans

By Richard Trombly

24 Feb 2011, Beijing – China announced that its Shenzhou 9 launch will be a manned mission to the Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace -1) space module after the successful robotic docking of the unmanned Shenzhou 8 with the orbiting space lab module in November of last year.  The launch is planned for June or July.

The next manned mission was planned to be later this year with Shenzhou 10 but spokesperson for the manned space program Wu Ping announced that  Shenzhou 9 will carry three astronauts and it will not only be another opportunity to test manual docking technology but also for a brief mission of scientific experiments within the 8.5 tonne station, said the spokesperson. The Tiangong -1 module was successfully launched in September.

An astronaut on an EVA during Shenzhou – 7 (Xinhua)

The Shenzhou module and its Long March II rocket have been completed and are undergoing testing and safety checks according to the spokesperson. China also hinted that this year’s Shenzhou 10 launch would include female astronauts who are currently in training, and that Tiangong – 1 would become part of a full spacestation to be completed by 2020 along with launches of Tiangong – 2 and Tiangong – 3, said the spokesperson. Original plans for Tiangong – 1 had involved letting it descend and burn up after Shenzhou 10.

The Shenzhou – 9 mission will be the fourth manned space mission since Yang LiWei orbited Earth in Shenzhou 5 and became China’s first astronaut in 2003 and making China the third country to successfully launch a human into space.

This represents an accelerated schedule of both manned launches and in the development of the China space station. Though projected to be much smaller than the current US-constructed collaboration, the International Space Station, the combined Tiangong station will reach 60 tonnes. But it is only a part of China’s developing space industry including a web of satellites and its own GPS system as well as more Moon probes after the success of Chang’e 2 which completed its Moon survey and is off to explore the Lagrange points in deep space.

China announced further plans late last year for human exploration on both the Moon and later to Mars. It already has plans for the Chang’e 3 and 4 probes. The Moon landing was outlined in China’s space roadmap released late last year which says China will “push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight”, and describes preparations for orbiting laboratories, space stations and studies that underpin “the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.” It was hinted that the Moon landing, the first since Apollo 17 in 1972, was slated for 2025 but recently China has advanced the timetable and investment in its other space endeavors with a Lunar mission possible before 2020.

According to Shanghai Security News, although it did not reveal its sources, China will spend more than USD$50 billion in the next decade on up to 20 space ship launches. It is a part of the space roadmap that involves investing heavily in developing China’s space industry and launch capabilities.

This comes as India is renewing its own commitment to space. As a neighbor to China, scientists in India are well aware of China’s heating up of the space race. In the 90s India was seen as a leader in launching satellites and had announced plans in the early part of this century to send unmanned missions to Mars but India has seen China develop heavy launch vehicles that can launch nearly 10 tonnes while India is limited by the 2.5 tonne payload of its own current rockets. But former ISRO chairman, U. R. Rao addressed a gathering of scientists last week at Sri Venkateshwara University and discussed the commitment of India to develop its sciences programs, increase interest among students and renew its commitment to go to Mars.

This came just before the announcement that a teen from India, Sachin Kukke, has been selected as a winner of the YouTube Space Lab science competition, said the U.S.-based company. The  18-year-old Bangalore engineering student won for his experiment on how microgravity affects the thermal conductivity of a ferrofluid subject to a magnetic field and how heat transfers in these magnetic liquids called ferrofluids which might be used to create advanced cooling systems.

All of this as NASAs own 10-year survey outlines austere spending on planetary sciences from 2013 – 2022 and slashes funding for two proposed Mars missions in 2016 and 2018. So NASA Mars exploration past the Mars Science Lab currently underway to the red planet will be virtually unfunded under the current plan.

While the U.S. has made vast advances in robotic space research but has not made serious advances in human missions since the development of the shuttle. With the retiring of the fleet the U.S. is currently reliant upon Russia to even reach the U.S.-constructed ISS. Perhaps China’s efforts will spur the USA to get back into the space race that China is currently gearing up to win.

Richard Trombly is  Public Outreach director for The Mars Initiative http://www.themarsinitiative.org/

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