Despite nine missions launched and half the year gone, the Chinese space program is only just getting started for what will be a crucial and revealing year for the country’s space ambitions.
2016 will see a crewed mission to a new spacelab, two new game-changing rockets, the opening of a coastal spaceport, a number of space science probes, legal, policy and political matters that will help shape the future.
There have also been developments in the background regarding China's future space station, its lunar probes, as well as a first 'space day' to highlight the country's achievements.
In September China will launch its second spacelab on a Long March 2F rocket. Tiangong-2 will be used to test new life support systems and refuelling and resupply technologies that will be vital for the country’s future space station.
Tiangong-2 will be visited by Shenzhou-11 in October, bringing with it two astronauts who will stay on the 8-tonne modified back-up to Tiangong-1 for 30 days, which would be a national record stay in orbit.
Above: Shenzhou-11 seen in February 2016 (CCTV/framegrab).
In the autumn China will debut its huge, 5-metre diameter, 800 tonne Long March 5 launch vehicle, which will more than double the country’s ability to put payloads in space (25 tonnes to low Earth orbit), and facilitate a lunar sample return mission next year (Chang’e-5), to loft hulking 20-tonne space station modules into orbit, and the 2020 orbiter-lander-rover mission to Mars approved earlier this year.
Like the recently launched Long March 7, the Long March 5 is powered by cleaner engines using cryogenic kerosene and liquid oxygen propellant, and promise to be more reliable and cheaper than the ageing hydrazine-fuelled Long March 2, 3 and 4 launch vehicles.
The payload for the test flight – originally slated for September but expected to be later – is currently unknown, but may contain surprises as with the impressive maiden flight of Long March 7, which carried a next-generation crew return capsule, an advanced restartable upper stage, a space debris remover and satellite testing technologies for refuelling others.
Facilitating the launch of these new rockets is the Wenchang Satellite Launch Centre on the southern island province of Hainan.
Wenchang took six years and five billion yuan (US$800m) to construct and takes advantage of the Earth’s greater rotational speed at lower latitudes to in effect lower fuel requirements for launches.
The coastal launch site is a crucial development for future ambitions, allowing rockets to be transported by sea, as China’s rail network would not be able to deal with the 5m diameter Long March 5.
Long March 7 being rolled out to the LC-201 launch pad at Wenchang.
‘China’s Cape Canaveral’ also has facilities and public viewing areas to host tens of thousands of visitors for launches, bringing the Chinese space program into the open, and at the same time shifting away from the inland sites established during the tension and threats of the Cold War.
Space science has received a massive boost this year, thanks to a number of developments, dramatically improving its role in China’s space activities and in doing so has become a driver of innovation.
First, a roadmap for space science missions for 2016-2030 has been unveiled and seemingly adopted as the way forward, and this was followed by a near billion dollar budget boost to allow the National Space Science Centre in Beijing to develop and launch five new missions to study the universe by around 2020.
China's Wukong dark matter probe blasts off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert on December 17, 2015, heralding a new era of Chinese space science (China Daily).
Four missions are already either underway or set to go. In December China launched its first dark matter hunting probe, Wukong or DAMPE, and a retrievable microgravity satellite, Shijian-10, in April.
During China’s annual parliamentary sessions in March, senior space officials revealed a number of interesting items, particularly related to the Chinese Space Station, the core module of which is expected to launch in 2018.
The CSS will feature two huge solar arrays – dubbed ‘wings’ – as well as two robotic arms and a Hubble-class space telescope that will be able to share orbit with the station and dock for repairs and maintenance.
— SpaceRef China (@ChinaInSpace) March 9, 2016
Two experiment modules will join by 2022, allowing taikonauts – three-to-six of whom are expected to stay for 6 months at a time – to perform science research in a range of areas.
In June, Wu Ping, deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency, revealed at the annual United Nations’ COPUOS meeting that China had agreed with the UN to open the CSS to international cooperation, especially with developing countries.
Such a move could bring potential soft power and space leadership boosts for China.
— Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) June 19, 2016
While neither headline news nor a visual and scientific spectacle, the introduction of China’s first draft of a national space law and a new policy white paper, both expected by the end of the year, will give great clues as to the direction and priorities of the Chinese space program for the next five years and beyond.
It is expected to include emerging issues such as what role commercial and private space may have in the future, and the role of deep space exploration – a priority area noted in the recent Five Year Plan – in overall national plans.
Despite a number of major and challenging missions, this will also be China’s busiest yet in terms of launches, with over 20 slated for the year.
Earlier missions were the Ziyuan-3-II remote sensing satellite together with Argentina’s Aleph-1 satellites, the Yaogan-30 military satellite, the Shijian-10 retrievable microgravity space science probe in April, three Beidou satellites in February, March and June, and the Belintersat-1 communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit for Belarus in January.
The Long March 2F to launch the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft in Tianjin, North China (CASC).
As well as Tiangong-2, Shenzhou-11, Long March 5 debut, QUESS and HXMT, the TanSat carbon monitoring satellite, a fourth Tianlin-1 comms sat, Gaofen-3 Earth observation satellite of the CHEOS constellation, a Fengyun-4A weather satellite and a range of remote sensing satellites including GaoJing-1 and commercial Jilin satellites and possibly Yaogan series birds are expected to enter orbit in 2016. SaudiSat 5A and 5B are also possibilities.
Details for Chang’e-4, the world’s first mission to land on the far side Moon set for late 2018, have been released, with teams from Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands all contributing payloads, and will launch after a relay satellite is sent to a Lagrange point beyond the Moon to allow communication. An excellent overview can be found here on the Planetary Society pages.
Above: The far side of the Moon, as seen by China's Chang'e-5-T1 test mission launched in 2014 (SASTIND).
Chang’e-5 lunar sample return, confusingly set for 2017 and ahead of Chang’e-4, has passed a range of tests including integration with a test model of the Long March 5, which will launch the mission.
An ambitious combined orbiter, lander and rover mission to Mars in 2020 was approved by the government in January, with methane detection, ground-penetrating radar, cameras and other instruments set to be on board.
Above: Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captures a stunning view as the sun sank below the rim of the Gusev crater on Mars on May 19, 2005 (NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell).
In late June, taikonaut Ye Guangfu joined up with astronauts and cosmonauts from ESA, NASA, JAXA and Roscosmos for an analogue mission simulating spaceflight and planetary exploration in the underground, watery caves of Sardinia, Italy, marking a small but historic footnote in human spaceflight cooperation.
You can follow the mission on Twitter.
Astronauts from ESA, NASA, JAXA, CNSA and ROSCOSMOS training together underground (Photo:ESA-V.Crobu).
China's massive 500m ‘FAST’ radio telescope will be ready to search the skies in September, with the aim of aiding our understanding of the nature of dark matter, search for pulsars, detecting long-chain carbon molecules in interstellar space and even detecting signs of communication from life on exoplanets.
Above: China's FAST telescope lies among karst peaks in Guizhou (China Daily/Qin Gang).
China also marked its first ‘space day’ to mark 60 years of aerospace industry, showing off its accomplishments to inspire young generations and boost the legitimacy and perception of Communist Party rule.
Officials have also been talking more openly about a human mission to the Moon, a long-suspected but undeclared objective for the Chinese space program.
More than just talk, China has been ticking off the techniques and technologies required, and is working on a Saturn-V class rocket to take taikonauts, or hangtianyuan, to the Moon. The project received a boost recently with a deal with Russia on the powerful RD-180 rocket engine.
Meanwhile Tiangong-1, the country's first space lab launched in 2011 and hosted six taikonauts over two missions, is apparently in trouble and could be set for an uncontrolled Earth re-entry.
The head of the European Space Agency made his first trip to China in March, calling for wider international cooperation. For more background and frequented updated news, visit the Go Taikonauts! webpages.
While China’s space program has often been dismissed in terms of ambitions and motivations, these major missions coming at a time of a likely fierce and unpredictable US presidential election could perhaps make space – quite low on public priorities – a campaign issue.
While the US is still substantively far ahead in space, the optics can suggest otherwise.
First, China will be launching people into space, which the US have not had the capability to do since the shuttles were retired in 2011, relying on Russia to get its astronauts to the ISS.
Next, the International Space Station is currently only funded to 2024, which means the CSS, expected to be completed around 2022, could be the only game in orbit.
Another issue is that it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is developing technologies and techniques necessary to take its taikonauts to the Moon, and ESA and Russia also have that destination in mind.
While SpaceX and the private space sector is the American trump card, NASA itself has seemingly lost its way, with neither support for its notion of a ‘Journey to Mars’ nor an interest in Mars.
A presidential candidate could opt to move on this, calling for a destination of the Moon or, more drastically Mars, depending on the state of the race and public reaction to China’s Tiangong, Shenzhou and Long March 5 missions.
Democratic party candidate Hillary Clinton has previously mentioned wanting to be an astronaut as a little girl, while Republican Donald Trump has said he prioritises issues on Earth that need attention.
These positions however are neither revealing nor set in stone.
While John F. Kennedy’s choice to go to the Moon cemented his role in a major moment in human history, the caveat is that Newt Gingrich’s not-altogether-crazy call for a Moon base in 2012 brought only derision.
China's own missions may well be coming regardless.