China jettisons underdog tag to become space force

SCMP

 Andrew MullenDeputy Editor, Political Economy 25 June 2022

Dear Global Impact Readers, 

Space, they say, is the final frontier. But how far does that frontier go and what’s out there? 

China, has in recent years, accelerated all things space as part of its busy science programme we recapped a few weeks ago, from landing a rover on Mars to nearing completion of its Tiangong space station.

In this issue, the SCMP’Stephen Chen, the news editor for science with our China desk, is back to look at China’s exploits and gaze into what the future holds for its ambitious space programme. 

‘Mom is going to war’Astronaut Liu Yang rejected her children’s request to wave goodbye at the launch pad.

“Mom is going to war,” said the first Chinese woman in space in a farewell letter penned just before the Shenzhou 14 mission earlier this month that sent her into space for a second time. 

“As a soldier on duty, I have to forget about family when facing threats. I am afraid I will cry when I see you,” she added.

Colonel Liu and her two male crew members will spend six months in orbit completing the construction of the Tiangong space station, the most sophisticated infrastructure built by one nation in space.

The work intensity will exceed previous missions, although they will need to keep an eye out for some surprise visitors, such as unfriendly satellites, which can pose a threat to their lives.

China has, up until recently, been an underdog in the space race after its request to join 15 other nations in the ageing International Space Station programme was rejected. 

Its efforts have been hampered slightly due to international sanctions, with China’s space industry forced to build almost everything itself.

For the same reason, few nations have launched satellites using Chinese rockets, even though they are technically advanced, relatively low in cost and highly reliable.

This has not stopped China, in recent years, conducting more space launches than any other country after its scientists and engineers developed a new generation of rockets despite having suffered initial setbacks.

They also built the world’s first quantum satellite, though some people thought the technology would not work.

The most precise atomic clocks in space, the fastest laser communication experiments, the nimblest imaging satellite and the most powerful space laser device are also recent achievements by China’s scientists. 

They also landed the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

In China’s first visit to Mars, a graveyard for many previous missions by other countries, they were also able to put a rover on the surface without first-hand knowledge of the red planet.

But Chinese space authorities have bigger ambitions.

They have teamed up with Russia to build an international research station on the Moon, while a sample return mission from Mars is scheduled in 2031, two years before Nasa.

In a save-the-Earth experiment, a Chinese spacecraft will also slam into a large asteroid to change its course.

And a solar power station in space will beam energy wirelessly to almost anywhere on the surface of the planet.

To achieve these goals, Chinese researchers are developing some revolutionary technologies.

By 2035, they plan to build a fleet of hypersonic space planes that can transport thousands of passengers to lower Earth orbit every year at a cost significantly lower than rockets. 

Several space nuclear reactors under development can produce over one megawatt of power for interstellar journeys or settlements.

planetary defence system consisting of a huge radar network will monitor space debris and detect asteroid threats with unprecedented accuracy and timeliness.

China’s rise as a space power, though, has not always been well received.

Some researchers have urged the military to destroy the world’s largest internet satellite network if it poses a threat to China’s national security.

New Chinese satellites are fortified by an extra shield against new space weapons such as high power microwaves that can disrupt communication or burn sensors and chips.

Just before Liu took off, a jamming device was found near the launch site in the Gobi desert, although it was unclear whether the discovery was a sabotage attempt or an accident.

“Don’t be afraid of failures,” Liu told her children in the letter. “Just do it again, and again.”

60 SECOND CATCH-UP
China’s Mars mission on track to lead the world in retrieving Martian rocks by 2031, says programme veteran
Chinese astronauts enter space station on six-month Shenzhou 14 mission
 China’s Shenzhou 14 mission begins mission to finish the Tiangong space stationOpinion: Why China’s ambitions in space should not be underestimated
China-US space race heats up as Chinese firm plans over 40 launches this year
Profile: China’s first woman in space Liu Yang returns for Shenzhou 14 mission as next generation takes centre stage
 Are we alone? Chris Hadfield on UFOs, the ISS and China in space
Opinion: China set to become the most committed spacefaring nation

DEEP DIVES
China must be able to destroy Musk’s Starlink if it poses threat: scientists
•Researchers call for development of anti-satellite capabilities including ability to track, monitor and disable each craft
•The Starlink platform with its thousands of satellites is believed to be indestructible ‘

Chinese military researchers say the country needs to be able to disable or destroy SpaceX’s Starlink satellites if they threaten national security.According to a paper published last month, China needs to develop anti-satellite capabilities, including a surveillance system with unprecedented scale and sensitivity to track and monitor every Starlink satellite. 

Read more

A journey to the magnetic centre of the Earth – from space

Zhang Keke heads a team planning to send four satellites into orbit to understand how the planet’s core creates a magnetic field and how the field changes

•The Macau-based planetary physicist has changed continents in the search for an answerZhang Keke knew a life-changing opportunity when he saw it.The planetary physicist had spent decades investigating theories, modelling, and data analyses to try to understand the fundamentals of the planets in the solar system. 

Read more

China plans to start building first-ever solar power plant in space by 2028

•Orbiting system to be launched in 2028, two years ahead of original plan, scientists say in paper”

•Technological advances and potential military applications may have renewed government interest in the concept, researcher saysChina plans to launch an ambitious space solar power plant programme in 2028, two years ahead of the original schedule, according to scientists involved in the project.A satellite will be launched that year to test wireless power transmission technology from space to the ground from an altitude of 400km (250 miles), according to the updated plan in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Chinese Space Science and Technology on Thursday. 

Read more 

China to send rocket on collision course with asteroid to knock it into safer orbitChinese scientists want to build a powerful telescope to find dark matter

•The ambitious project – known as VLAST – aims to achieve 10 times the sensitivity of Nasa’s Fermi Large Area Telescope•Researchers say it could go into orbit by the end of this decade, but it still needs government approvalChinese scientists want to build a next-generation space observatory that could put them in a leading position in the search for dark matter – if it works out.The ambitious Very Large Area gamma-ray Space Telescope, or VLAST, is still in the early research and development phase. But the aim is to achieve 10 times the sensitivity of Nasa’s Fermi Large Area Telescope – currently the most sensitive gamma-ray telescope in the world. Read moreWhere did water on the moon come from? Chinese scientists find clues in lunar samples

•Analysis of soil brought back to Earth suggests part of the answer is in the moon’s interior

•Researchers also found fewer signs of water than previously thought. The water content of soil on one part of the moon appears to be much lower than previously thought, according to Chinese analysis of data from the lunar surface.And a significant part of the water detected in returned samples during lab analysis appears to have come from the interior of the moon, the researchers said in a paper published in the international journal Nature Communications on Tuesday. Read more China’s Chang’e 5 lunar lander finds water on the moon, but not as much as they hopedChina develops AI that ‘can use deception to hunt satellites’

•The team ran thousands of simulated space battles in which the hunters developed the ability to ‘trick’ their target

•Researchers believe there will be no role for humans in this type of conflict, with AI being used to power both hunter and preyA research team in China said that an anti-satellite artificial intelligence system has mastered the art of deception in a simulated space battle.In the experiment, the AI commanded three small satellites to approach and capture a high-value target, repeating the exercise thousands of times. 

Read more

Is life unique to Earth? China’s space telescope aims to find answers

•The Closeby Habitable Exoplanet Survey mission aims to monitor about 100 sun-like stars to search for Earth-like planets around them

•Once approved, the telescope is expected to be ready in about five years and positioned 1.5 million km away from the EarthA team of Chinese researchers has proposed launching a space telescope to look for a nearby “cousin” of the Earth – a planet of similar size and mass as our own, and orbiting in the habitable zone around a sun-like star.No such planet has been found yet, but it may hold the key to the question of “whether life is unique to Earth or ubiquitous in the universe”, according to project lead Ji Jianghui of the Purple Mountain Observatory at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Nanjing. 

Read moreTo keep track of the latest global news developments, follow daily coverage on our website or focus on stories about China’s space programme. 

In our next issue, our economy desk will mark the fourth anniversary of the US-China trade war. 

We welcome your feedback. Email me at globalimpact@scmp.com. Plus, be sure to check out our China feed for the latest news and analysis. 

All the best,Stephen ChenNews Editor, Science

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