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Thursday, January 10, 2019, 11:39
Space industry soars to new heights
By Zhao Lei
Thursday, January 10, 2019, 11:39 By Zhao Lei

Nation launches the most rockets in 2018

A Long March 3B carrier rocket lifts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province on Feb 12 to place two Beidou navigation satellites in orbit. (PHOTO / VCG)

China's space industry has taken huge strides in the past 12 months, culminating in last week's successful landing of a probe on the far side on the moon for the first time in history.

Last year not only saw the start of the Chang'e 4 lunar program, but also marked the first time China had launched more rockets into orbit than any other country in a year.

China saw 39 orbital launches in 2018, equaling the nation's total space missions in the 1990s.

These launches accounted for one-third of the world's space missions last year - more than the combined missions of Russia, the European Union and India, which ranked third to fifth in the annual launch list. The second-highest number of launches was 34 by the United States.

As no probe had landed on the far side before, all scientific information obtained by the Chang’e 4 will be new to the world

Zhang He, executive director of the Chang’e 4 program at the China Academy of Space Technology

China's 39 missions were the most of any nation in a single year since 2000, when Russia carried out the same number.

In 2017, China conducted 18 space launches, the US 29 and Russia 20. In 2016, China and the US both staged 22 launches.

Largely due to China's space activities, 2018 was the first year since 1990 in which 100 orbital launches were made worldwide. In 1990, 121 launches took place.

Since 1964, more than 100 launches had taken place annually for 27 years, but the numbers tailed off through the 1990s and 2000s for a host of reasons, the main one being the end of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, the private US aerospace manufacturer and transportation services company, wrote on his Twitter account late last month that he thought China's space progress was "amazing", adding that last year the country had staged more orbital launches than the US for the first time.

However, the tech tycoon was wrong - it was the third time China had outperformed the US in launch attempts, the previous times being in 2011 and 2012.

The first space launch last year was made by Musk's Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket to send a classified US satellite into orbit. The satellite was feared lost shortly after launch due to technical problems.

The last launch of the year was that of China's Long March 2D rocket, which successfully placed into orbit the first satellite of what is intended to be the nation's largest space-based network.

Of China's 39 missions, 37 were conducted by the major space contractor China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp's Long March series. All were successful.

Another State-owned contractor, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, made one successful launch with its Kuaizhou rocket, while LandSpace, a private rocket maker in Beijing, carried out its first launch, also the first orbital attempt by a privately built Chinese carrier rocket, although the mission failed due to malfunctions in flight.

These missions involved nine types of Chinese carrier rockets that thrust 104 spacecraft, including the Chang'e 4 lunar explorer, skywards.

Pang Zhihao, a spaceflight researcher at the China Academy of Space Technology, said the unprecedented number of launches last year and the high success rate are evidence of the country's rocket research and manufacturing capabilities and the quality of its space products.

He said: "For instance, the Long March 3A series had a tight launch schedule in 2018 that was much more intense than previously. But the rocket maker cooperated very well with its engine supplier as well as the launch center, and together they managed to ensure the success of every mission despite huge pressure. All of these factors show that the country is now an experienced space launcher."

Jin Zhiqiang, a rocket project manager at China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, said the Long March 3A series was the busiest rocket classification last year, with 14 missions. He said the series has produced one of the most reliable rockets in the world, capable of ensuring missions to various types of orbits.

He said the 100th launch in the Long March 3A series will take place in the first half of this year, making the classification the first to achieve this milestone.

The Chang'e 4 lunar explorer made its landmark soft landing on the far side of the moon on Jan 3. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Global implications

Yang Yuguang, a senior space industry observer in Beijing and a member of the International Astronautical Federation's Space Transportation Committee, said many of China's space efforts last year were not only important to the nation itself, but also had global significance.

These included the Chang'e 4 lunar mission and the accelerated construction of the Beidou Navigation Satellite System.

The Chang'e 4 spacecraft was launched atop a Long March 3B rocket early last month at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province - the country's fourth lunar expedition.

After a four-and-half-day journey and about 22 days of preparations in lunar orbit, the probe made its landmark soft landing on the far side of the moon on Jan 3, accomplishing a goal sought by scientists for decades.

The descent and landing were conducted through control signals from the Beijing Aerospace Control Center transmitted via China's Queqiao relay satellite, another technological highlight of the mission. Queqiao, named after a legendary bridge between the Earth and the moon, was launched in May.

Wu Weiren, chief designer of China's lunar program, said the descent and landing were perfect. He described the mission as "an important milestone for China's space exploration", adding that it is a good start for future efforts.

Ten hours after the landing, the probe released its rover, the Yutu 2, or Jade Rabbit 2, to roam and survey the landing site in the enormous South Pole-Aitken basin, widely considered the largest and deepest known basin in the solar system.

Tidal forces on Earth slow the moon's rotation to the point that the same side always faces the Earth. Most of the far side is never visible from Earth.

Although the far side has been extensively photographed by spacecraft, starting with a Soviet probe in 1959, no probe had ever made a soft landing there before, so scientists worldwide had not been able to conduct close observations and surveys.

With its investigation of the far side, particularly the Von Karman crater, the Chang'e 4 mission will enable scientists to deepen their knowledge of the early history of the moon and the solar system.

Zou Yongliao, head of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Lunar and Deep Space Explorations Department, said the South Pole-Aitken basin is about 12 kilometers deep, which will allow for investigative work under the surface.

Moreover, rocks on the far side are generally older than those on the side visible from Earth, which will help researchers to better understand lunar chemical compositions, Zou said.

Steve Durst, founding director of the International Lunar Observatory Association, a nonprofit organization in Hawaii, said astronomers globally have long wanted to carry out observations on the far side, which promises to produce clearer images, as the moon itself blocks electromagnetic transmissions from Earth.

"We are very hopeful that the Chang'e 4 will open up a new era in astronomy," he said.

Zhang He, executive director of the Chang'e 4 program at the China Academy of Space Technology, said, "As no probe had landed on the far side before, all scientific information obtained by the Chang'e 4 will be new to the world."

Students visit a science exhibition in Guiyang, Guizhou province in November. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Space-based services

Toward the end of last year, China announced that its Beidou Navigation Satellite System had started to provide global services and that the space-based network was being used in a number of countries.

According to the China Satellite Navigation Office, 2018 was the busiest year in Beidou's construction history, as the nation launched 10 Long March rockets to position 18 satellites for the system, which also made Beidou the biggest user of Chinese carrier rockets last year. The latest satellites in the network are the 18th and 19th of the Beidou third-generation, or Beidou-3, series and were launched in late November.

Ran Chengqi, director of the China Satellite Navigation Office, said these launches completed the establishment of the Beidou-3 system's "primary constellation", signifying Beidou's entry into a "global era" from a "regional era".

Beidou is one of four space-based navigation networks along with the United States' GPS, Russia's GLONASS and the European Union's Galileo.

Since 2000, when the first Beidou satellite entered orbit, 47 system satellites, including four experimental ones, have been launched and several have been retired. Beidou began providing positioning, navigation, timing and messaging services to civilian users in China and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region in December 2012.

To date, 33 satellites - 18 in the Beidou-3 series and 15 in Beidou-2 - are operational in several orbits. They offer a global positioning service with 10-meter accuracy and an Asia-Pacific regional service with 5-m accuracy.

Before the end of next year, China plans to send 12 satellites into orbit for Beidou, which, by that time, will have about 30 in service and will have better capabilities and services.

In addition to Beidou, China made significant progress last year in developing other space-based assets for public or commercial purposes.

In December, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp deployed the first satellite in its ambitious Hongyun project, the country's first low-orbit broadband communications satellite network. Demonstrating low-orbit broadband communications technologies is among the satellite's tasks.

The company intends to place more than 150 Hongyun satellites into orbit around 2023, and the number is likely to rise in response to market demands, according to Xiang Kaiheng, Hongyun's chief designer. After the network becomes fully operational, users will be able to pay to make calls and use high-speed internet services globally, he said.

Commercial advances

Zhang Di, a senior rocket scientist, said that in addition to the impetus from huge State-backed programs, progress in the commercial space sector last year also contributed to China's rise in the global space arena. Zhang is chairman of Expace Technology, a China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp subsidiary that builds the Kuaizhou solid-propellant carrier rocket.

Last year, three private space startups in Beijing - OneSpace, i-Space and LandSpace - carried out launches at government-run testing sites, marking the start of the private sector's participation in the space-launch market.

LandSpace appeared to have moved faster than the others, as it launched a carrier rocket in late October at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. However, the rocket failed to place the satellite in orbit due to a malfunction in flight. The rockets launched by OneSpace and i-Space were sounding ones, which cannot place payloads into orbit.

Zhang Changwu, CEO of Land-Space, said that despite the failure of the maiden launch of the company's ZQ-1 rocket, the mission was still important for the country's space industry because it was the first attempt by a Chinese private company to build and launch a carrier rocket. It also showed the strength of the private space sector.

"The overall performance of our rocket on its debut flight was good enough to give us confidence in our capability and future growth," he said.

"Looking to the future, China's space industry needs changes and innovations. As State-owned programs are developing new rockets and facing new challenges, we would be wise not to put all our eggs in one basket. Therefore, the country needs a diversified portfolio in the space-launch field," Zhang said.

"Private rocket companies are willing and ready to undertake some government assignments or to design rockets based on the requirements of government programs."

Last year, LandSpace said its production base in Huzhou, Zhejiang province - the first privately owned carrier rocket factory in China and the largest of its kind in Asia - had begun operations and would be used to manufacture the company's first liquid-fuel rocket and the country's first methane rocket engine.

Both LandSpace and i-Space plan to launch at least one carrier rocket this year.

Zhang Di, the rocket scientist, said, "There have been increasing demands for commercial launch services from State-owned and private satellite enterprises, giving opportunities to private rocket firms."

He predicted that State-owned and private rocket companies are likely to make at least 40 launches this year, maintaining China's No 1 position globally.

"As far as Expace is concerned, at least five Kuaizhou launches are scheduled in 2019. But our clients' demands go beyond five launches, so if everything goes well, 10 are likely," he said.

Zhang Di added that Expace intends to conduct the first mission of the Kuaizhou 11, set to be China's largest and most powerful solid-propellant carrier rocket, before the end of this year.

The prosperity of the country's satellite businesses, especially that of private players, lies behind the thriving launch market.

Commsat, a private satellite producer in Beijing and one of the forerunners in the nation's private satellite operations, launched eight of its small satellites from Chinese rockets last year. It led other private companies in terms of the number of satellites launched.

Xie Tao, Commsat's CEO, said that with the launches last year, his company showed it is capable of designing and building small satellites. The missions also demonstrate that private Chinese companies are able to develop satellites weighing hundreds of kilograms, and that the bigger a satellite is, the better its capability.

He said Commsat looks forward to cooperating with private rocket manufacturers.

"In 2019, we will still mainly rely on State-owned companies' rockets, but we expect privately made ones to provide launch services for us as soon as possible," Xie said. He added that he hopes domestically made private rockets can place satellites in orbit this year, which would be a landmark for the nation's space industry.

In addition to rockets and satellites, private players have made their mark in the ground-based support business.

Several private startups such as Beijing Tianlian Telemetry, Tracking and Command Technology and Shaanxi Xingyi Space Technology have set up a number of ground stations in China for spacecraft telemetry, tracking and command. Telemetry is an automated communications process by which measurements and other data are collected at remote or inaccessible points and transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring.

Zheng Ruhua, chief technology officer at Beijing Tianlian, said the company can serve at least 20 satellites, adding that it plans to establish several stations overseas, and if the plan goes well, it will be capable of handling more than 200 satellites by the end of the year.

zhaolei@chinadaily.com.cn


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