China Enjoyed Stellar Year in Space

Yutu rolls out onto the moon. (Credit: CNSA)
Yutu rolls out onto the moon. (Credit: CNSA)

China had a highly successful year in space in 2013, sending a second crew to live aboard the Tiangong-1 space station in June and becoming only the third nation to successfully soft land a spacecraft on the moon in December. As the year ended, the Yutu rover had completed its first exploration of the lunar surface and had entered a hibernation period for a long lunar night.

With increasingly sophisticated spacecraft, a reliable stable of Long March launch vehicles, and ambitious plans for the future, China has made itself a major player in the international space arena as space agencies in the United States and Europe face budgetary pressures and Russia struggles to revive a once formidable space program.

2013 Launch Record

The nation made 15 launches in 2013, down from the 19 it accomplished in 2012. That total placed the nation’s space program in third place behind Russia and the United States, respectively.

NumberDateLaunch VehicleLaunch SitePayloadResult
104/26/13Long March 2DJiuquanGaofen 1Success
205/01/13Long March 3BXichangChinasat 11Success
306/11/13Long March 2FJiuquanShenzhou 10Success
407/15/13Long March 2CJiuquanShijian 11Success
507/19/13Long March 4CJiuquanShijian 15, Shiyan 7, Chuangxin 3Success
609/01/13Long March 4CJiuquanYaogan 17Success
709/23/13Long March 4CTaiyuanFengyun 3CSuccess
809/25/13KuaizhouJiuquanKuaizhou 1Success
909/26/13Long March 4BJiuquanShijian 16Success
1010/29/13Long March 2CTaiyuanYaogan Weixing-18Success
1111/20/13Long March 4CTaiyuanYaogan 19Success
1211/25/13Long March 2DJiuquanShiyan Weixing-5Success
1312/01/13Long March 3BXichangChang’e 3Success
1412/09/13Long March 4BTaiyuanCBERS 3Failure
1512/20/13Long March 3BXichangTupac KatariSuccess

The successful year was marred by the rare failure of a Long March 4B on Dec. 9 that destroyed the $250 million Chinese-Brazilian CBERS 3 environmental satellite. Chinese officials say one of two upper stage engines did not fire as planned, causing the spacecraft to fall back into the atmosphere.

China debuted a new launch vehicle in 2013. The Kuaizhou rocket made a successful flight from Jiuquan on Sept. 25, orbiting the Kuaizhou 1 satellite. The small satellite launch vehicle is believed to be designed to allow China to quickly orbit military satellites.

Human Spaceflight: Steady as She Goes

China's Tiangong-1 space laboratory with a Shenzhou spacecraft approaching it. (Credit: CNSA)
China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory with a Shenzhou spacecraft approaching it. (Credit: CNSA)

On June 11, the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft bound for the Tiangong-1 space station blasted off from the Jiuquan spaceport aboard a Long March 2F rocket. Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping spent 15 days in space conducting experiments and testing technologies before touching down safely on June 26 in Inner Mongolia.

Shenzhou 10 was the second and final human mission to China’s first space station, which at 10.4 meters (34 feet) in length is approximately half the size of the Salyut stations flown by the Soviet Union in the early 1970’s. The flight came one year after the crew of Shenzhou 9 visited the station during a 13-day space mission.

China’s human spaceflight program has been slow and steady. Shenzhou 10 was only the fifth human mission in nearly 10 years. It’s unclear when the next flights will occur, but given the pattern they will likely follow the launch of the Tiangong-2 space station now scheduled for 2015.

Model of the Tiangong-2 space station
Model of the Tiangong-2 space station

Tiangong-2 will resemble the Soviet Union’s second-generation Salyut 6 space station in size, form and function. The advanced station will be lengthened to 14.4 meters (47 feet) and boast two docking ports. The additional docking port will allow automated freighters to resupply the station.

The Tiangong stations are precursors to a permanent, multi-module facility that China plans to have operational around 2020. The first module of the station is set for launch in 2018, followed by other elements in future years.

China has begun marketing the multi-module station as a place for international cooperation with the expectation that the U.S.-led International Space Station will be de-orbited in 2020. NASA wants to extend ISS operation to 2028, but it is not clear whether the space agency’s international partners – Canada, Japan, Europe and Russia – will agree to the extension.

European and Russian officials seem eager to cooperate with the Chinese space agency. However, NASA has been barred from any significant cooperation by Congressional action.

A Giant Leap in Lunar Exploration

On Dec. 1, a Long March 3B rocket lifted off from Xichange with China’s third lunar probe, Chang’e-3. The spacecraft touched down on the moon’s Bay of Rainbows on Dec. 14, achieving the first soft landing on the lunar surface in 37 years. Within hours of the landing, the Yutu (Jade Rabbit) rover rolled off the landing vehicle and began driving around the surface.

Yutu — which measures 1.5 m (4.9 feet) high and weighs 120 kg (260 lb) — is designed to explore a 3-square kilometer area of Sinus Iridum during a three-month mission. The vehicle is equipped with a camera, X-ray spectrometer, infrared spectrometer, and a radar unit that will measure the structure of the lunar soil down to a depth of 30 m (98 feet) and the lunar crust down to several hundred meters.

Yutu also has the capability to dig into the lunar soil and perform basic analyses of samples. Chinese scientists have equipped the rover with sensors for avoiding objects and the ability to to navigate inclines.

The landing vehicle is equipped with seven instruments and cameras that will study the moon and its environment separately.  The payload includes an astronomical telescope with an extreme ultraviolet camera that will be able to observe celestial bodies and study how solar activity affects the ion layer near Earth.

China is planning a sample return mission in 2017. It is possible that the country will land astronauts on the moon sometime in the 2020s, although there appears to be no firm schedule or funding for such missions as yet.

An ASAT Test?

On July 19, a Chinese Long March 4C blasted off from Jiuquan with the Shijian 15 military satellite, the Shiyan 7 technology demonstration satellite, and the Chuangxin 3 secondary payload. It’s what these spacecraft did once they were in orbit that has intrigued Western observers.

According to one report, one of the spacecraft captured another one in “what Pentagon officials say was a significant step forward for Beijing’s space warfare program. The satellite capture took place last week and involved one of three small satellites fitted with a mechanical arm that were launched July 20 as part of a covert anti-satellite weapons development program, said U.S. officials familiar with reports of the test.”

American officials are concerned such technology could be used to capture, disable or disassemble U.S. satellites in orbit, according to the report.

Ahead in 2014: A Blue Water Spaceport

Later this year, China will open its fourth and most modern spaceport on the northeast coast of Hainan Island. The Wenchang Satellite Launch Center (WSLC) is a former suborbital test center that is being upgraded with multiple orbital launch pads.

The new launch center is in a tropical location only 19 degrees from the equator, making it better for equatorial communications satellite launches and other missions than China’s three existing spaceports. Spent rocket stages will also drop over the ocean instead of over land as now occurs.

WSLC will be served by wide gauge railroad lines that are capable of handling the larger heavy-lift Long March 5 launch vehicle now under development. Scheduled for its initial test launch in 2015, Long March 5 will be capable of lifting up to 25 metric tons (27.5 tons) to low Earth orbit and 14 metric tons (15.4 tons) to geosynchronous transfer orbit.