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China’s Space Mission: The Long March To The Moon And Mars

China has made comprehensive plans for its own 60-ton space station and manned missions to the Moon and Mars.

| June 27, 2011 | Features

AsianScientist (Jun. 27, 2011) - On the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight by Yuri Gagarin, the Chinese government made an announcement which was extremely appropriate for the occasion: it will launch its own space station.

This project was already on the cards, but it was formally confirmed during the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Called Tiangong (天宫) or Heavenly Palace, the 60-ton space station will be constructed in orbit from a series of modules launched over the next few years. After the initial trials in docking and rendezvous, it will be manned by a three-man crew. The present International Space Station (ISS) weighs 419 tons and generally has a six-man crew or more.

For quite some time, the US has been trying its best to include China in the ISS program, but the Chinese response has been lukewarm. The Chinese space station program envisages two spacecraft – Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 - being launched in 2012, which will dock with the Tiangong-1 module.

The Chinese have invited scientists from all over the world to participate in the project, and speculation is rife that a Pakistani scientist could perhaps be one of the earliest guests.

Apart from the scientific significance, space scientists feel that the Chinese space station project is endowed with a lot of political and geopolitical ramifications, and is being viewed as a clear challenge to US dominance in space.

China’s space flight program: Codenamed Project 921

The space station project is a part of China’s ambitious human space flight program, codenamed Project 921, which incorporates a number of Russian technologies.

China already has many launch complexes; some of the important ones are the Jiaquan Launch Center, Taiyuan Launch Center, Xianchang Launch Center, and Newchang Launch Center. China also has a variety of rockets, and the Long March rocket has several versions.

The country has laid out a clear and precise trajectory for Project 921.

It launched its first manned space flight, Shenzhou-5, in October 2003 with Yang Liwei. The mission was an astounding success.

This was followed by Shenzhou-6 in 2005 with a two-man crew, and a third one in 2008 with a three taikonauts (Chinese name for astronauts or cosmonauts), both equally successful. The importance of the third mission was that it included a spacewalk for 14 minutes.

Though China is a late entrant to the human space flight program compared to the US and Russia, it has mastered the critical technologies in a short period of time. Experts believe that more taikonauts will be flying to space in the days ahead, and training is already in full progress.

2030: A Chinese taikonaut on the moon?

Apart from the space station, China is also laying considerable emphasis on missions to the moon, with the ultimate aim of a manned lunar landing around 2030.

Named after the Chinese goddess of the moon, China launched its first mission to the moon, Chang’e-1, on October 24, 2007. The mission ended on March 1, 2009 when it was taken out of orbit and impacted on the moon’s surface. Chang’e-1 helped to create an accurate and a high resolution map of the moon’s surface.

Only a year later on October 22, 2008, India launched its first mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-1. Asked if India and China were on a race to the moon, ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) officials dismiss any suggestions that both the countries were competing with each other.

“There is absolutely no rivalry and in fact we would like to collaborate,” remarked an ISRO official who declined to be identified.

With the US human space flight program in limbo due to the policies of the Obama administration, it is clear that China is set to become a world leader in this field – a move that may not only have political and scientific value, but also military significance.

Like its space station project, China has made clear and precise plans for its lunar program too, which some feel India can emulate as well. Three years after the launch of Chang’e-1, China launched its second moon mission, Chang’e-2 on October 1, 2010, as a follow-on to Chang’e-1.

Chang'e-2 (嫦娥二号)
Chang'e-2 (嫦娥二号), China's second moon orbiter (Source: Xinhua).

The flight of Chang’e-2 was a technological breakthrough: it successfully completed the earth-moon cruise in just five days instead of 12. The mooncraft conducted research from an altitude of 100 km above the moon’s surface as a preparation for a soft landing by China’s third lunar mission, Chang’e-3, tentatively slated for lift off in 2013.

On June 8, 2011, Chang’e-2 completed its mission and departed from the lunar orbit, zooming into interplanetary space to test Chinese tracking and control network.

The third and fourth lunar missions, Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4, will have a lander and rover. They will form part of the second phase of the Chinese lunar exploration program.

These will be followed by Chang’e-5 in 2017, which will be a sample return mission. Chang’e-5 will carry a drilling machine to obtain a sample of the moon rock from a depth of two meters and bring it back to earth.

China eyes the Red Planet

Wang Yue, Mars500 Project
Wang Yue (王跃), Chinese taikonaut (Source: Mars-500).

China’s space plans do not focus only on human space flights and the moon, because it has set its sights on the Red Planet as well.

Currently, its space scientists are working on the country’s first unmanned Mars exploration mission between 2014 and 2033, and possibly even a manned landing on Mars during the 2040-2060 period.

Notably, in the Mars500 project, which is being conducted at a facility outside Moscow, it is a Chinese candidate, Wang Yue (王跃), who is topping the list in performance. The program is a simulated human landing on Mars, and the entire mission lasts for 500 days.

Besides manned landings on both the Moon and Mars, the Chinese space goals are also to:

  • Build a long term earth observation systems.
  • Set up an independent satellite telecommunication network.
  • Provide commercial launch services.
  • Establish remote sensing systems.

With the Chinese government fully backing the space program, China is likely to accomplish these goals, since it also considers these milestones to be an extension of the nation’s technological capabilities and foreign policy.

If India does not pick up speed with its human space flight program, Indian space scientists feel that the country’s program may be overtaken by China’s.


Copyright: AsianScientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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