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Space News

May 24, 2004

Will China’s Space Plan Skip the Moon?


By James Oberg

If China continues applying its space exploration strategy that has already borne spectacular success with the flight of their first astronaut last October, it may wind up ‘stealing a march’ in space over the United States by the middle of the next decade. Ten years from now, as NASA’s ‘Constellation’ project prepares for resumed human flight to the Moon, China’s big new space boosters and its improved Shenzhou spacecraft may be ready for a much greater “giant leap for mankind”, perhaps even into interplanetary space.

That, at least, was the direction that the Senate Space Subcommittee hearings seemed to be going last April 27, when I and three other space scholars discussed the subject with Sam Brownback (R-KA) and Don Nelson (D-FL), himself a veteran of a space shuttle mission in January 1986. Their concern was the international competition facing NASA’s proposed activities to fulfill the White House ‘New Space vision’ announced in January.

Besides the obvious target, the Moon, there are other goals for astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, where astronauts and cosmonauts have been constrained for more than three decades. Many of these destinations are easier to reach than the lunar surface, which requires development of a heavy and sophisticated Lunar Module like that used by Apollo. The deep-space alternative destinations consist of ‘gateway zones’ to valuable orbits around Earth and to tempting nearby interplanetary targets such as small asteroids.

The Chinese Are Going

The one-day space mission of astronaut Yang Liwei last October 15-16 inaugurated a new player on the stage of the universe. When China became the third nation to develop manned spaceflight capability, it announced its intentions to chart its own unique trajectory into space.

The next mission, called Shenzhou-6, is expected in 2005, when 2 astronauts will spend a week in orbit. Subsequent flights will test spacewalks and space docking, leading to a small all-Chinese space laboratory by the end of the decade.

In parallel, China is developing a step-by-step program of unmanned lunar probes, starting with a small orbiter that could be launched by the end of 2006. Small landers, and eventually moon ‘jeeps’ and sample return probes, would follow.

Bold talk about Chinese astronauts on the Moon, or about a Chinese space shuttle, has quickly evaporated. The stories seem to have been based on mistranslations, on boasts from scientists with no connection with the real program, and on Western mirror-imaging of US, Russian, and European proposals.

The Next Great Leap in Rockets

In the real world, China’s most serious space challenge is clear. The key to more ambitious moon missions is a bigger booster, the same one that is officially to launch the Chinese manned space station as well as a new generation of commercial communications satellites. This is the Long March 5-500, a heavyweight space lifter on the scale of Europe’s Ariane-5, Russia’s Proton-M, and the US Titan-4.

China hopes to fly it by 2008, but this is a particularly difficult project. Their current family of ‘Long March’ boosters has been developed through incremental upgrading of earlier designs. Engineers added extra strap-on boosters, stretched a fuel tank, upgraded an engine thrust – and gradually expanded their capabilities.

This process could only proceed so far until the maximum efficiency was attained, and China is already at that point. So now a larger-diameter main stage, new propellants, and totally new engines need to be developed. Too big to be transported by rail to the inland launch sites, the new booster will be barged to a new launch site on Hainan Island, off the southern coast of China.

Far Space Goals

Assuming that the new booster does become available by the end of the decade – and the Chinese space engineers have an enviable track record of successfully developing new hardware, even if not quite as quickly as first planned – it will have numerous useful missions. First and foremost, it is supposed to allow the launch of heavy communications satellites that China can sell to foreign customers, restoring a cash flow cut off in the late 1990’s when US trade restrictions strangled China’s commercial space launch business.

But early in the next decade, as China also operates its own small space station using Shenzhou transport spacecraft – and perhaps visits the International Space Station from time to time – attention will also turn to more distant goals. With a stronger heat shield, and strapped to a Long March 5-500 booster, a Shenzhou spacecraft could easily loop out around the Moon and back as a demonstration of China’s technical skills.

Such demonstrations serve as credibility enhancers for all of China’s high technology, including commercial exports, scientific status, diplomatic influence, and military power. And it’s not just ‘public opinion’ – Chinese experts make it clear that responding to challenging space goals forces them to develop more sophisticated industrial capabilities.

This ‘super-Shenzhou’ and its new booster could not land on the Moon – an entirely new and expensive spacecraft would be needed for that. Instead, the vehicle could range elsewhere in Earth-Moon space, including a series of gravitational ‘neutral points’ that offer interesting vantage points for observation and jumping-off points for more distant travel.

By far the most interesting is the so-called “Sun-Earth Lagrange Point #2”, which lies about a million miles from Earth, out away from the Sun. That’s four times the distance of the Moon, at the edge of interplanetary space, where spacecraft could metaphorically ride the gravitational wake of Earth as it circles the Sun. An entire fleet of astronomical observatories – including the Webb Space Telescope to replace Hubble – is being assembled to operate from exactly this area of space.

This region is also near the apex of Earth’s long shadow, where instruments could observe the full circle of Earth’s atmosphere back-lit by sunlight to provide unique diagnostics of climate and weather. Earth out the spacecraft window would be as small as the moon looks in the skies of Earth.

After launch from Earth orbit, it would take about two weeks to drift out to this region, and a rocket firing is needed to stop there for as long as was needed. Perhaps a satellite would be deployed, or another one be repaired. After a few days or a few weeks, another rocket firing sends the spacecraft back towards Earth. The total rocket force needed is only slightly greater than that required to circle the Moon and return to Earth, but the big difference is in the mission duration.

The Space Gateway

This area is also sometimes called a “gateway zone”, because it’s a good place to park pieces of a bigger spacecraft – requiring additional launches from Earth – that could then dive back towards Earth to pick up speed and fire its engines to hurl it out into interplanetary space, perhaps to meet a passing asteroid for several weeks of study. Flight paths for such missions, lasting six to twelve months and still requiring less total rocket power than landing on the Moon, have already been developed.

Rationale for human asteroid missions is compelling. First is the great scientific interest in such objects, remnants of the early solar system. Second is the question of exploitable resources, perhaps water ice or even structural materials. Third is the issue of ‘threat mitigation’, studying the cohesiveness of such objects against the future day when Earth needs to push one off a collision course. And fourth is the psychological breakthrough into interplanetary flight and the testing of men and machines to allow serious planning for expeditions to Mars.

The zone is also a gateway into orbits of possible military interest. From here, small automated ‘parasite satellites’ could be dropped into the orbital planes of high-altitude US defense satellites on communications, reconnaissance, and navigation missions. Undetected from Earth, they could nudge themselves onto matching paths, creep up to their targets, and attach to them for later exploitation.

How Likely Is This Scenario?

China has so far expressed no public interest in such missions. For lunar exploration, its news media relies entirely on Chinese specialists quoting from Western studies. But there’s been no mention at all of Western discussions of these alternate goals for manned missions still ten years or more in the future.

What I told the Senators was not a prediction that China WOULD choose such a strategy, merely that for other reasons, China was developing all the appropriate space hardware that would make such a strategy feasible. Furthermore, China’s official policy for selection of space goals, and the demonstrated skills of its space team, look like a good match with this approach – but not with running a replay of the Apollo program, or a head-to-head competition with a renewed US interest in the lunar surface.

What we’ve learned of China’s space strategy in recent years is that it is innovative, competent, and deliberately inspirational. China has learned from the programs of other nations, including lessons that even the original nations missed, or forgot. These factors permit at least a tentative projection of its future trajectory, and that path leads upward and outward and – quite possibly – far beyond any other nation’s current intentions.

James Oberg is the NBC News Space Consultant. He testified last month before the Senate Space Subcommittee on prospects for Chinese space exploration.


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