China’s Space Race
Tiangong-1, artist impression. Credit: China Manned Space

China’s Space Race

20/11/2020Written by Alex Thompson

In this new space age more countries are pushing forward their own ambitious plans and very soon China could be a leading candidate to carry space exploration further for the next generation.

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Dongfanghong 1 satellite, China's first satellite, was launched on April 24, 1970. Photo: Weibo

China’s history of rockets can be traced back at least 800 years, when they developed small gunpowder rockets as a tactical device to scare opposing armies.

In the 1950s, China began to test its own rocket technology, with their missile program lead by Qian Xuesen (Hsue-Shen Tsien).

Under the leadership of Qian, China launched its first ballistic missiles and then its first satellite, Dongfanghong I, in April 1970.

It would take until 2003 for China to place its first astronaut into orbit when Yang Liwei launched aboard Shenzhou 5, the first human spaceflight mission of the Chinese Space Programme.

China's Long March rocket on 10 October 2016. Credit: Reuters.

The Chang’e missions have seen China turn their attentions to the Moon, with plans to have their first footprints on the Lunar soil at the end of this decade or start of the next.

To achieve this, China laid out four phases of missions to precede the proposed landings:

  • Phase One – launches of Chang’e 1 (2007) and 2 (2010).
  • Phase Two – soft-land on the Moon with Chang’e 3 (2013). The spacecraft also discovered a new type of basaltic rock in its mission. Chang’e 4 (2019) became the first mission to ever soft-land on the far side of the Moon.
  • Phase Three – launch of Chang’e 5  and the first sample-return mission (proposed for 23 November 2020). The lander will collect up to 2kg of lunar samples, before returning them to the Earth, making China only the third country to do this
  • Phase Four – the development of a robotic lunar research station. These upcoming missions (Chang’e 6-8) will see the spacecraft investigate the Moon’s South Pole, returning samples and collecting data on resources and verification of how these resources could be utilised.

The final phase may also test technology that will be pivotal to the creation of the lunar base.

Tiangong-1, artist impression. Credit: China Manned Space

China also have ambitions of placing astronauts a little closer to home, with the completion of a Chinese Space Station currently scheduled for 2023.

Operating around 400km above our heads in Low Earth Orbit, the station will be the final part of the Shenzhou missions.

The first part of the station will be launched next year and will consist of the central Tianhe module, which will act as crew living quarters.

This will be followed by a further ten missions over the next two years, a combination of both crewed and uncrewed activities.

The completed station will be considerably smaller than the International Space Station (around 20% the mass).

The astronauts are already in training, with a further eighteen due to be selected earlier this year. They will conduct microgravity experiments in the fields, among others, of space medicine and space life science. These experiments will be carried out in cooperation with several other countries as China looks to broaden its social space appeal.

A co-orbiting space telescope, Xuntian, will also be launched following the completion of the station and will be able to dock with it for maintenance and repairs.

Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover undergoing tests during 2019. CREDIT: China Aerospace Technology Corporation

As any country looking to become a global space superpower, China has longstanding plans to also become a major Martian presence in the very near future.

Tianwen-1 (TW-1) consists of an orbiter, lander and rover and was launched towards Mars on 23 July 2020, due for arrival in February 2021.

This is China’s first mission to Mars and will be looking for signs of past and present life both on and underneath the Martian surface.

It will also be looking to further map the red planet, examine the Martian soil and atmosphere. This mission, along with similar missions by NASA and the UAE that are due to arrive at Mars around a similar time, will advance our knowledge of the planet.