It was just on a year ago today when China made history by becoming one of the few space faring nations to have a manned presence in space. Sure it wasn’t particularly long with the taikonauts staying on board for just over a week but it still demonstrated that they were quite capable of doing everything that other nations have. That’s made all the more incredible by the fact that they have essentially built this program from scratch in just over 20 years at a fraction of the cost. Ever since then I’ve been waiting to hear about their next (and final) mission to Tiangong-1 as that would demonstrate their ability to repeat what they’ve done.
Today they’ve done just that.
Shenzhou-10 launched early this morning carrying with it 1 returning taikonaut (Nie Haisheng , Shenzhou-6) and 2 first comers including China’s second female taikonaut. The mission profile is much like the Shenzhou-9 with the crew spending 15 days in orbit with the majority of that being aboard Tiangong-1. Primarily they’ll be engaging in technological and scientific experiments but they’re also doing some outreach programs with Wang Yaping conducting some lectures live via television broadcast. Once their mission has been completed and the taikonauts returned to earth Tiangong-1 will be de-orbited in preparation for its upcoming replacement Tiangong-2.
I’ve said it several times before but it bears repeating, China is doing some really impressive work here and they’re doing it at an incredible pace when compared to previous endeavours to do the same. Sure, there’s a little bit of standing on the shoulders of giants here (thanks to their initial technology deal with Russia) but being able to launch a space station, perform unmanned missions and then 2 manned missions to it all within the space of 3 years is incredibly impressive. Tiangong-2, scheduled for launch for later this year, expands on the capabilities they developed further and should that prove successful that will pave the way for their first modular space station in the form of Tiangong-3.
Whilst I’m never going to be against more space stations the fact that the Tiangong series of craft exist can be directly traced back to the USA’s inability to work with China on anything space related. That may have made sense 3 decades ago but China has demonstrated pretty clearly that they’d have a lot to offer a joint space mission like the International Space Station. I’d even hazard a guess that the Tiangong/Shenzhou modules would be compatible with much of the ISS given their Russian technology roots or would likely only require minor modifications. Who knows, come 2020 when Tiangong-3 starts getting built we might see some collaboration from other nations but I don’t like our chances if the US gets involved again.
Despite that I’m all for the progress made by China as the more options we have for getting to and staying in space the better. The future of missions like this is looking to be increasingly private however, with companies and SpaceX and Orbital Sciences doing missions at a cost that even China says they can’t match. That’s a good thing however as it will allow them to focus on pushing the boundaries even further, taking on projects that will be truly awe inspiring.
I’ve always felt that China’s exclusion from the International Space Station project has been a huge misstep on the USA’s part. Sure I can understand that there are some concerns, as there always are with any international co-operative effort, but the fact is that China really did have a lot to offer the ISS even if it wasn’t anything that the Russians could provide. Exclusion from such a project has sent them down their own path of space exploration and the last decade has shown that China are not only capable of putting their own Taikonauts up there but they’re also quite adept at pushing the boundaries of their capabilities much faster than governments have done in the past.
It was just on 9 months ago today that China launched their own space station, Tiangong-1. It didn’t take them long after that to launch an unmanned Shenzhou capsule and dock it with the space station, verifying that all the systems required for humans to be able to visit the station were in place and functioning correctly. 4 days ago saw the launch of Shenzhou-9 carrying with it 3 Taikonauts (including China’s first female space fairing citizen) with their destination being none other than Tiangong-1. Yesterday saw them dock and for the first time in history China now has a manned space station in orbit.
The total mission time for Shenzhou-9 is about 2 weeks giving the taikonauts around a week or so aboard Tiangong-1. In that time they’ll be doing some medical experiments and studying the development of butterflies in a microgravity environment. Realistically the payload of this mission is the taikonauts themselves and this just serves as a shake down of the systems aboard Tiangong-1 ahead of future missions that will visit it and it’s successors. There’s one more manned visit planned after this one concludes currently scheduled for some time next year, after that Tiangong-1 will be deorbited and then replaced by upgraded versions of the craft. Ones which will form the basis of their permanent space station.
China has made a lot of progress in the past couple years and it looks like they’re not about to stop any time soon. Whilst I don’t believe that their achievements will see them end up being contributors to the ISS it will put pressure on the USA to relax their rules around co-operation with them as their original reasons (that China had nothing to give the program and would only take) really don’t hold any ground anymore. Of course that’s never stopped anyone from holding on to an irrational point of view before and I don’t expect it to change any time soon.
It’s really quite exciting to see so much development in space exploration even if it isn’t new territory. Governments competing with each other for space supremacy is how we landed men on the moon before we had modern computers and China’s incredible efforts to get a foothold in space could spur on another race of similar magnitude. If I’m honest I do wish that this wasn’t the case, I’d much prefer them just to do it for the sake of doing it, but nothing gets superpowers moving faster than the potential for their pride to be hurt. With an election on the horizon there’s ample opportunity for the upcoming Presidential candidates to start affirming their commitment to being the leaders in space and hopefully we’ll start to hear them doing so soon.
The USA has always been wary of China’s ambitions in space and I believe it’s mostly for all the wrong reasons. Sure I can understand that the fact that China’s space division is basically a wing of its military might be cause for concern, but the same could be said for the fact that the USA’s Department of Defense’s budget for space exploration exceeds that of NASA’s. Indeed the USA is worried enough about China’s growing power in space and other industries that there’s already been speculation that it could spark another space race. Whilst this would be amazing for a space nut like myself I really wouldn’t wish that kind of tension on the world, especially when the USA is struggling as much as it is right now.
Of course that tension is enough to spark all sorts of other speculation, like for instance the true nature of the mysterious X-37B’s mission. It’s payload bay suggested that it was capable of satellite capture, an attribute shared by it’s bigger cousin the Shuttle, but its previous orbits didn’t put it near anything and it didn’t really have enough delta-v capability to be able to intersect with anything outside a few degrees of its own orbit. However since then there’s been a couple launches and one of them is smack bang in the X-37B’s territory.
The craft in question is none other than China’s Tiangong-1.
Yesterday the BBC ran an article that speculated that the USA was using the X-37B to spy on Tiangong-1. Now initially I dismissed this as pure speculation, there are far easier ways for the USA to spy on a satellite (like using one of their numerous other satellites or ground based dish arrays) than throwing their still experimental craft up in a chase orbit. However checking the orbital information for both Tiangong-1 and the X-37B shows that they do indeed share very similar orbits, varying by only 0.3 of a degree in inclination and having pretty similar apogees and perigees. Figuring this is the future and everything should be a few Google searches away from certainty I set about finding out just how far apart these two satellites actually are to see if there was some possibility of it being used to spy on China.
To do this I used 2 different tools, the first being n2yo.com a satellite tracking website. This site allows you to input the satellites you want to track and then displays them on a Google map. Once I have that I can then use another tool, this time from findpostcode.com.au which shows me the distance between two points (which thankfully also takes into account the fact the earth isn’t flat). So firstly here’s a picture of the two orbits overlapped:
So as you can see they do indeed share very similar orbits but there does seem to be an awful lot of distance between them. Just how much distance? Well the second picture tells the full story:
Just over 14,000KM which is greater than the diameter of the earth. What this means is that if the X-37B was being used to spy on Tiangong-1 it would have to peer through the earth in order to see it, something which I’m pretty sure it isn’t capable of. Also if you look at the first picture you’ll also notice that Tiangong-1 actually passes over the USA as part of its normal orbital rotation, putting it well within the purview of all the ground observations that they have control of. I’ll note that the distance between Tiangong-1 and the X-37B won’t remain constant, but they will spend a good portion of their lives apart. Enough so that I don’t believe it would be particularly useful for reconnaissance. Additionally unless the USA knew which orbit that Tiangong-1 was going to use (possible, but we’re getting deeper into conspiracy territory here) then technically Tiangong-1 launched onto the X-37B’s orbit and not the other way around (it has not changed its orbit since the second launch, unlike it did the first time).
Honestly the idea that the USA was using the X-37B was definitely an interesting prospect but in reality there’s really no justification apart from conspiracy theory-esque hand waving. The USA has far better tools at their disposal to spy on China’s fledgling space industry than a single run experimental craft that’s only on its second flight. The orbits also put them at a fair distance apart for a good chunk of the time (as far as I can tell, at least) as well making it even less likely that the X-37B is being used for spying. Still it was an interesting idea to investigate, as is most things to do with the ever mysterious X-37B.
Pushing the envelope of capabilities in space is a slow and arduous task where small step after small step eventually makes its way to the ultimate goal. Even with today’s technology it still takes us the better part of a decade to go from concept to reality, especially if you’re trying to build launch capability from scratch. Hell even my current crush, SpaceX, has taken 10 years to get to the stage they’re at and that’s considered blindingly fast even when you compare them to the superpowers of the world. China on the other hand has proven themselves to be extremely capable, innovating at an extremely rapid pace.
So rapid in fact that I was sure I had already covered their most recent accomplishment, docking Shenzhou 8 with Tiangong 1:
China’s technological capabilities took a major surge forward with the successful docking in space today for the first time ever of two Chinese built and launched spaceships – orbiting some 343 kilometers in the heavens above at 1:37 a.m. Beijing time Nov. 3(1:37 p.m. EDT, Nov. 2). China’s goal is to build a fully operational space station in Earth orbit by 2020 – about the time when the ISS may be retired.
Today’s space spectacular joining together the Shenzhou-8 unmanned spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 prototype space station was an historic feat for China, which now becomes only the 3rd country to accomplish a rendezvous and docking of spacecraft in Earth orbit.
In fact the last thing I wrote was just over a month ago when China had successfully launched their Tiangong 1 prototype. In that time they managed to prep, launch and have Shenzhou 8 rendezvous with Tiangong 1 putting China on par with the small number of nations who have developed such capability. Over the next couple weeks Shenzhou 8 will un-dock and re-dock with Tiangong 1 in order to prove that the technology is solid. Once the mission has been completed Shenzhou 8 will return to earth for further analysis.
Launching two separate vehicles rapidly one after another is par for the course of any space program but what really surprised me was China’s plans for the next 2 craft to visit Tiagong 1. China has no less than 2 more missions planned before the end of 2012 and one of those will be a manned. When you take into consideration that China has only managed to complete their first EVA 3 years ago (a critical capability for keeping a station in orbit) having a manned station so soon afterwards is an incredible achievement. Going on their timeline we could see China have their own Salyut level space station before the decade is out, and that’s just incredible.
I’m hoping that with these accomplishments that both Russia and the USA recognize how valuable China could be for the future of their space programs and seek to include them in future endeavours. So far China is the only country explicitly excluded from participating with the International Space Station, most because the USA thought they’d be nothing more than a burden to them. Such rapid progress shows that they’re not only capable of replicating current technology but also innovating their own solutions, something which would be highly valuable to all current space fairing nations. It’ll take a long time for those political barriers to start coming down, but I hold out every hope that one day they eventually will.
China really has come out of no where in the past decade in terms of space capability. 2003 saw them launch their first taikonaut into space aboard Shenzhou 5 and they quickly followed that up 2 years later with another manned orbital mission that lasted 5 days. Just 3 years after that China then completed their first extravehicular activity (EVA) showing that their ability to develop their capability rivalled that of other nations that had gone before them. Sure they might have bought some of technology from Russia but they’ve improved nearly every aspect of said technology, making it far more capable that it ever was.
Apart from Russia other space faring countries have been somewhat apprehensive in cooperating with the fledgling space nation. The general sentiment is that they wouldn’t have anything to gain and they’d only be helping them (which is ludicrous, considering the improvements they made to all the Russian tech they bought). This has extended as far as the International Space Station not having one Chinese national visit it, leaving China on their own when it comes to developing space technologies. To that end China just today launched their very own space station, Tiangong 1:
China launched their first space station module into orbit today (Sept. 29), marking a major milestone in the rapidly expanding Chinese space program. The historic liftoff of the man ratedTiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace 1) space lab on a Long March 2F rocket took place at 9:16 p.m. local time (9:16 a.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in Gansu province in northwest China and is an impressive advance for China.
The beautiful nighttime liftoff occurred exactly on time and was carried live on China’s CCTV and on the internet for all to see. Chinese President Hu Jintao and many of China’s other top government leaders witnessed the launch from the launch control center as a jesture of confidence and support. Their presence was a clear sign of just how important China’s top leadership considers investments in research as a major driver of technological innovationthat is bolstering China’s vigourously growing economy and employing tens of thousands of people.
As a space station Tiangong 1 is a diminutive craft having only 15m² worth of pressurized volume. Within that space though it has sleeping quarters for a crew of 3 and exercise equipment. The life support systems are capable of hosting a crew for missions up to 40 days in length although that capability won’t be tested for a while. The next Shenzhou mission will be visiting the Tiangong 1 space station however it won’t be manned as it will just be a docking test flight. The following 2 missions will bring crews aboard the space station and they’ll remain in orbit for longer durations each time. After those missions Tiangong 1 will be de-orbited in preparation for the next Tiangong station.
The way China is progressing their technology is distinctly Russian in their origins. From 1971 to 1982 Russia’s Salyut program (which formed the basis for Mir and the ISS) used a similar method for testing equipment and expanding capabilities. During that program a total of 9 Salyut space stations were launched, visited by crews and then de-orbited at the end of their life. It’s a distinct difference from the American way of doing things which is to launch a much larger craft and keep it up there for as long as possible, ala Skylab. Adopting the Russian style of envelope pushing means China can iterate on their designs faster and improve their technology more quickly, which they’ve shown they’re quite capable of doing.
For the launch the International Astronomical Union presented taikonaut Zhai Zhigang with 300 flags that had previously flown on a Russian Soyuz as well as the last space shuttle mission. It might seem like a small gesture but it’s an indication that the world is starting to take China’s endeavour’s in space seriously and will hopefully begin to include them in their cooperative efforts. China has proved they’re quite a capable nation technologically and ignoring them would be doing us a major disservice.
The future of human space exploration is looking ever increasingly bright and China’s success with Tiangong 1 is just another sign of this. Hopefully their success spurs on the space superpowers of old to start innovating faster than they currently are as nothing gets people excited about space more than giants battling it out for technological supremacy. It’s quite likely though that the real competition will come from private industry and that’ll be quite a show to watch.