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emerging space superpower; China and the promise of victory in the new space race

In 1995, a Chinese missile exploded after takeoff, killing at least six people on the ground. The exact details of what happened are still unknown; An issue that reminds us that Chinese society is still closed in many ways. Despite this secretive heritage, we now know that the country’s space capabilities are growing.

The China National Space Administration (CSNA) now has several launch sites across the country; From Taiwan’s facility in the Gobi Desert, which launches some of China’s meteorological satellites but is also part of the intercontinental ballistic missile system, to the Shichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province and the more modern Wenchang Space Launch Site on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, which is used to deliver astronauts. to the Chinese space station and used for longer unmanned missions.

A new launch facility in the eastern port city of Ningbo, two and a half hours from Shanghai, is nearing completion and is expected to eventually launch a hundred commercial rockets a year at short intervals, like the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Ningbo is on the coast; This means that the missiles do not have to fly over land and it has a favorable latitude to exit the atmosphere quickly.

Local authorities want Ningbo to be known as China’s space city. With access to a major port and space-focused industries in Shanghai, the center is just a few kilometers from a cluster of commercial launch industries near the mouth of the Yangtze River. Geely, the country’s largest automaker, has its headquarters there and invests heavily in satellite design and aerospace-related industries. In 2022, the company will use the Xichang facility to launch nine of its satellites into low-Earth orbit as the first phase of a network to provide more accurate navigation for self-driving vehicles.

All these actions are part of the growing business space industry in China. The country is behind the United States in terms of private funding. However, companies are eager to invest; Especially in launching satellites before the near-Earth orbit gets crowded. The Chinese Communist Party began encouraging private investment in 2014; But like all sectors of the Chinese economy, the link with the government is stronger than in many countries. Currently, there are more than a hundred private space-related companies in China; But many of them are actually public sector companies. For example, rocket manufacturer ExPace, located in the Wuhan Space Industry Complex, is a subsidiary of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.

Other companies are more distant from the government. For example, ISpace was the first private Chinese company to launch into orbit with the Hyperbola-1 rocket in 2019. But following this success, two failures were recorded in the company’s record in 2021. Other companies have also experienced such bad behavior. In order to counter this, the government is slowly allowing government technology and expertise, previously confined to the sector, to be transferred to the civilian sector as part of a national strategy. This brings together government, private companies and the country’s top research universities in the top branches of technology in a more formal way than in the United States. In a highly competitive market, some new firms are likely to fail; But what seems equally clear is that some of them will become powerful national and possibly global players.

In all these cases, a large and dynamic labor force will help China. This country is dealing with long-term population problems; But it can still attract a large number of scientists and engineers. Beijing Aviation Institute alone has 23,000 students. In every year of this century, China has increased the number of graduate engineers; While the United States has seen a year-to-year decline in this regard.

As China has seen the $1.3 trillion impact of GPS on the growth of the US economy since the mid-1980s, it plans to develop its own Beidou navigation satellite system in the near future. American farmers use GPS to select the best uses for their land, delivery services in cities are more efficiently routed, financial institutions are able to record the time of transactions, and ship owners are able to track their fleets. The military and encrypted version of Bidoo is more accurate than the civilian version and will be used to monitor the movements of the army and armed forces of other countries.

China also plans to launch at least a thousand satellites in the next decade. It is increasingly offering its services to developing countries that cannot afford to launch rockets or build satellites. This will be used to strengthen bilateral relations in an effort to distance countries from the United States. Satellites used for scientific exploration are likely to have significant success in competition with foreign examples, such as the Integrated High-Energy X-ray Observatory, which was China’s first X-ray astronomical satellite.

More ambitious goals include landing on transiting asteroids to extract valuable materials from them. Some of these rocks are tens of kilometers in diameter and contain billions of dollars worth of metals needed for 21st century technology. A Chinese start-up called Origin Space has already launched a prototype robot for trapping and destroying space debris and plans to develop it for asteroid mining.

China plans to launch another probe to Mars. Getting there is hard enough; But the country, along with the United States and the European Space Agency, are working on plans to collect soil and rock samples and bring them back to Earth. Sending probes to Jupiter and Saturn is also under consideration.

But perhaps the project of greatest political importance is China’s future moon landing. In 2021, China and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly build a base on the moon called the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). To this end, they envisage three phases: first, reconnaissance operations until 2026, including three manned missions; then landing on the moon and finally returning. Since Antarctica has ice craters with potential water sources, it has been considered as a landing site.

When China landed an unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the moon in 2019, it planted the Chinese flag on the lunar surface and began drilling in the area it plans to use as a base. Some reports suggest that China wants a permanent presence on the moon by early 2028, but such a goal seems too ambitious. 2030 is more realistic and even achieving it will be impressive.

The first structure built allows for mining to extract the resources needed to grow the base, most importantly water, from the moon. Moscow and Beijing say they plan to fully reopen the base by 2035. This is while the US-led Artemis program has a more ambiguous timetable.

Building a base on the moon will be as awe-inspiring for the next generation as the 1969 moon landing. The result of such an achievement is an appreciation of the brilliance of the technology and, just as importantly, the determination of the country or countries undertaking such a feat. A permanent presence on the moon is not just about ‘planting a flag’, it is about capturing the ‘high frontiers’ for both military and commercial advantage. The reward for this success is the potential wealth of the moon and the ability to use it as a point of gravity to deploy military satellites in a place far from the reach of competitors.


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