x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Great leap upwards for China

Buildings Brics: China is heading for the final frontier by using its economic muscle to power an ambitious space programme.

In this image taken from China's CCTV via APTN, a video image show the docking of the Shenzhou 8 craft with the already orbiting Tiangong 1 module last week. AP Photo / CCTV via APTN
In this image taken from China's CCTV via APTN, a video image show the docking of the Shenzhou 8 craft with the already orbiting Tiangong 1 module last week. AP Photo / CCTV via APTN

When China's Shenzhou 8 spacecraft successfully docked last week with the mini space laboratory Tiangong 1, it represented just one small step in terms of man's achievements in space.

After all, the world's second-biggest economy is playing catch-up when it comes to the space race, so when it sent the lunar probe Chang'e 1 into orbit in 2007, it was doing so more than 15 years after its arch rival Japan.

Yet for China's space programme, the coming together of Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 8 was a giant leap, to borrow Neil Armstrong's phrase, heralding a new burst of activity in the final frontier by the world's most populous nation.

The country has ambitious plans for an unmanned moon landing, a manned space station - the recent docking was an important step towards that ultimate goal - as well as a manned flight to the moon.

On top of that, China has become a key player in the commercial market for the manufacture and launch of satellites, using the same cost advantages that have made the country the dominant force in world manufacturing.

According to reports, China hopes to achieve a total of 20 rocket launches carrying a total of 25 satellites by the end of the year, up from 15 rockets and 20 satellites last year. Only Russia will have launched more satellites this year.

"It is an arduous process and a great challenge for us to cope with the high intensity of satellite launching," Yuan Jiajun, the deputy general manager of China Aerospace and Technology Corporation, told the state-run Xinhua news agency.

So with last week's docking as well, it will be quite a year for China in space. Shenzhou 8 is to spend a fortnight attached to Tiangong 1, circling the world before detaching and heading back down. Later missions are set to carry people.

Yet despite the successful docking, the difficulties of space exploration remain significant, as other recent events show.

China's first Mars probe, Yinghuo-1, was stranded on Wednesday in Earth's orbit after it took off from Kazakhstan that day with Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft. Engineers hope to send the probe on the right trajectory before it loses battery power.

In August, an experimental Chinese satellite failed to reach orbit when the Long March 2C rocket carrying it malfunctioned after launching from Gansu province in north-west China.

A year earlier the country also suffered a partial mission failure, a disappointment that hit particularly hard given that over a span of more than 10 years before this, China had enjoyed a run of 75 successful rocket launches.

China is believed to be able to launch satellites for as little as half the US$90 million (Dh330.6 million) that Russia or a western country charges, so its attractions to customers are obvious.

"It has an advantage over all its competitors," says Yung Kai-Leung, the associate head of the industrial and systems engineering department at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, whose work includes collaborations with the Russian space agency.

"They're pretty reliable. Although there may be setbacks, [such as] a few months ago, on the whole if you look at the history of rocket launches, they're pretty stable. Nearly every launch is successful.

"You can say the reliability is gradually jumping up, while the cost remains low."

Also, it is not as though rocket failures are unique to China. India, also competing based on price, having for example launched a satellite for Singapore in April, suffered two failures last year.

Similarly, in August Russia experienced a setback when a Soyuz rocket taking a supply ship containing fuel and food to the International Space Station crashed a few minutes after taking off.

That incident prompted the former US astronaut Leroy Chiao to say China should be added to the 16-nation team responsible for the space station because it is the only country other than Russia capable at present of flying people into orbit. There are concerns that failures mean the station may have to be left unmanned.

"I think [China] is the fastest route to a backup vehicle for the space station," Mr Chiao told journalists.

China's space industry faces challenges beyond just eliminating rocket failures. Rules on the use of US technology also pose problems.

The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (Itar) from 1998, designed to restrict technology with military applications from being sold or sent to China, have largely prevented western nations from turning to China to launch their satellites.

To circumvent the regulations, European satellite manufacturers developed Itar-free satellites that do not contain US technology.

Only last month, a communication satellite built by Thales Alenia Space, based in France, and which will be operated by Eutelsat, also in France, was launched on a Long March rocket in Sichuan province in south-west China. According to reports, it was the first time China had launched a European-built and owned satellite for 12 years.

Even if the Itar regulations have caused China to lose business as a satellite launcher, some believe they have encouraged the further development of space technology within the country.

"That will speed up their development and in the long run [the Itar regulations] will be beneficial because the components they develop will be much lower cost than buying from outside," Dr Yung says.

Looking further ahead, China hopes to have a manned space station of its own by 2020, and by 2025 to have achieved a manned flight to the moon.

Yet the ultimate value of the country's space programme may not be milestones such as these and the satisfaction they bring to the Chinese public. Benefits can spill over into a range of fields.

"When you venture into space exploration, you give the country a focus to develop and improve your components, your products, in every aspect of the production and manufacturing economy," says Dr Yung.

"If you don't have any application for high technology, the technology of your country will stay stagnant. Space exploration has lots of advantages for the upgrading of the industrial capability in China."