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China's long march in space

From Soviet assistance to the race with the US to take advantage of the mineral wealth of asteroids

The arrival of a Chinese artifact on the hidden side of the Moon has led world public opinion to focus on the Chinese space program, more developed than many imagined. Assisted by the Soviets in their beginnings, the Chinese have ended up taking a lead in some programs (probably more apparent than real, due to some setbacks), such as the development of their own permanent space station, and compete with the United States in the desire to take advantage of the mineral wealth of asteroids.

Centro de lanzamiento de satélites Jiuquan

▲ Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center [CNSA]

ARTICLE Sebastián Bruzzone [Spanish version]

The Chinese space program started at the beginning of the Cold War, in the midst of a direct struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for the control of international politics. Since 1955, President Mao Zedong looked for the respect of the world powers and decided to follow in the footsteps of the neighboring country, the USSR. In March of the following year, the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defense began the development of a first ballistic missile (Twelve Year Chinese Aerospace Plan). After the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in 1957, Mao embarked on the development of a Chinese artificial satellite that would be active in space two years later (Project 581), an effort materially and economically supported by the Soviet Union. However, in the early 1960s, all economic and technological assistance by the USSR stopped after Beijing accused Nikita Khrushchev of being a revisionist leader who wanted to restore capitalism.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is in charge of the Chinese space program. The first Chinese manned space flight took place in 2003, with Yang Liwei, aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, which was docked to the Tiangong-1 space station. In this way, China became the third nation to send humans out of Earth. The main objective of the Shenzhou missions is the establishment of a permanent space station. Up to now, there have been nine Chinese men and seven women in space.

Since 2007, China put its focus on the Moon. The Chinese lunar exploration program has been developed in four phases. The first (Chang'e 1 and 2), that took place in 2007 with CZ-3A, was the launching of two unmanned lunar orbital probes. The second (Chang'e 3 and 4), conducted in 2013 with CZ-5/E, was the first moon landing of two rovers. The third one (Chang'e 5 and 6), executed in 2017 with CZ-5/E, consisted of a moon landing and return of samples. And the fourth, scheduled for 2024 with CZ-7, will consist of a manned mission and the implementation of permanent bases on the lunar surface.

The Chang'e 4 mission was launched on December 8, 2018; the landing took place on 3rd January 2019 in the crater Von Kárman (186 kilometers of diameter), in the southern hemisphere of the hidden face of the Moon. The landing was a success, according to Sun Zezhou, chief engineer of the mission. The images transmitted by the Yutu-2 rover showed that this lunar surface never before explored is densely perforated by impact craters and that its crust is thicker than the visible side. As part of a biological project a cotton seed sprouted, but the high levels of radiation, lower gravity than terrestrial and sudden changes in temperature killed the cotton plant some days later. Given that the hidden side of the Moon is protected from any interference from the Earth, according to astronomers, it should be a good place to better study the evolution of stars and galaxies.

In mid-2017, Chinese intentions to search for scarce minerals on Earth on the surface and, if possible, inside asteroids, were made public. Within China's space program, this particular issue occupies an important place. According to Ye Peijan, head of the lunar exploration program, in recent years his country has been studying the possibility of executing a mission that captures an asteroid to place it in the orbit of the Moon, and thus be able to mine it, or even use it as a permanent space station, according to the South China Morning Post. The same official highlighted that in the Solar System and near our planet there are asteroids and stars with a large amount of precious metals and other materials. This plan could be launched as soon as 2020. To do this, the CNSA will use the Tianzhou cargo ships, unlike the Shenzhou manned exploration vessels whose main objective is the establishment of a permanent space station, or the Chang'e of lunar missions.

The cost of this futuristic plan would be very high and it would involve the organization of complex and high-risk missions, but the interest will not decline, since it could be very profitable in the long term and would provide billionaire benefits. Goldman Sachs analyst Noah Poponak has pointed out that a single asteroid could have more than 50 billion dollars in platinum, as well as water or other precious metals.

The capture of an asteroid requires, first, that a ship land on its surface, to anchor itself. The ship must have incredibly powerful engines, so that, being anchored, it may be able to drag the entire asteroid into the Moon's orbit. These thrusters, with enough power to move a rock of thousands of tons, still do not exist. Ye Peijan has warned that this technology needed for such a space experience could take approximately 40 years to develop. For the moment, in March 2017 China announced in the official press that it had the intention of sending probes to the cosmos to study trajectories and characteristics of some objective asteroids. Thus China goes to direct competition with NASA, which is developing a program to reach an asteroid as well.

Tiangong-1 was the first space laboratory that China put into orbit, in 2011, measuring 10.5 meters in length, 3.4 meters in diameter and weighing 8.5 tons, with the objective of carrying out experiments within the Chinese space program and starting the permanent station that the CNSA seeks to have in orbit by 2023. Against all speculations, in 2016 the digital control of the ship was lost and it ended destroyed in pieces over the Pacific Ocean, northwest of New Zealand. Subsequently, that very year a second module, Tiangong-2, was launched with the same objectives. On the other hand, China is making progress in the plan to establish a permanent space station. According to Yang Liwei, the central capsule will be launched in 2020 and the two experimental modules in the two subsequent years, with manned missions and cargo spacecraft.

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