Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 June 2019

China to build space power station

1MW solar plant planned to launch by 2030 and scientists have already started construction of an experimental base

A Long March 3B rocket carries China's lunar rover to the moon. The country now plans a solar plant in space. AFP
A Long March 3B rocket carries China's lunar rover to the moon. The country now plans a solar plant in space. AFP

China’s space ambitions are shifting into a higher orbit.

Following its successful and world-beating trip to the far side of the moon, China is preparing to build a solar power station in space, as the world’s second-biggest economy strives to burnish its superpower credentials.

With an $8 billion annual budget for its space programme, second only to the US, China is seeking to compete with its rival for economic, military and technological dominance.

China is not alone in having major space ambitions. Last month, The National reported that the UAE's historic Mars mission remains on track – with the satellite probe to the Red Planet set to arrive in time for the country's milestone 50th anniversary.

The Hope Probe is to be launched from Japan between July and September of next year, and will orbit around Mars in 2021 as scheduled, said the lead engineer for the ambitious project.

In China, scientists have already started construction of an experimental base in the western Chinese city Chongqing. Initially, they plan to develop a smaller power station in the stratosphere between 2021 and 2025, a 1 megawatt-level solar facility in space by 2030, and eventually larger generators, according to the state-backed Science and Technology Daily.

Here’s what China has been doing in space, according to Bloomberg:

Moon exploration

The nation’s space scientists successfully landed a lunar probe on the far side of the moon on January 3, capping a series of missions and giving a boost to China’s ambitions. Landing on the unexplored region will enable Chang’e-4, the rover named after the mythical Moon Goddess, to better study the moon because of the lack of electromagnetic interference from Earth. The vehicle is equipped with a low-frequency radio spectrometer to help scientists understand “how the earliest stars were ignited and how our cosmos emerged from darkness after the Big Bang”, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

Green shoots

Reminiscent of the 2015 science fiction film The Martian starring Matt Damon, China’s lunar mission is also testing if the barren moon can support life. Pictures sent back from Chang’e-4 last month showed the first green leaf from cotton seeds nine days after the experiment was initiated, according to Chongqing University, which led the biological project. The test load on the mission carried cotton, canola, potato, yeast and fruit fly.

More missions

China has more such missions in the pipeline. Four more versions of the Chang’e probe are in the offing, with at least two of them planned for a landing on the moon’s south pole, according to Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration. The agency will also explore setting up a research base on the moon. A Mars probe is likely by the end of this decade.

Space station

China aims to build its own space station around 2022. Dubbed Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, it will have a core module and two other modules for experiments, altogether weighing 66 tonnes and able to carry three people, with a designed life cycle of at least 10 years. The facility would be used for scientific research in a dozen areas including biology, physics and material sciences.

Private rockets

President Xi Jinping has loosened the government’s monopoly on space launches, fuelling the formation of small domestic companies with dreams of challenging companies such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The start-ups are receiving funding from Chinese venture capitalists and private equity investors and can also rely on the expertise of rocket scientists from China’s space programme.

GPS Challenger

Taking its rivalry with the US to the heavens, China is spending at least $9bn to build a navigation system and cut its dependence on the American-owned GPS –whose satellites beam location data used by smartphones, car navigation systems, the microchip in dogs' necks and guided missiles. And all those satellites are controlled by the US Air Force, making the Chinese government uncomfortable. So, it has developed an alternative called the Beidou Navigation System, which eventually will provide positioning accuracies of 1 metre or less with use of a ground support system.

Space junk

The Asian power is developing sophisticated space capabilities such as “satellite inspection and repair” and clearing up orbiting junk – “at least some of which could also function” as weapons against US satellites, the US Defence Intelligence Agency said this month. China’s Foreign Ministry said the US allegations were “groundless.”

Updated: February 18, 2019 01:19 PM

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