By Takayuki Nakagawa
BEIJING – As part of its plan to step up its space development efforts, China launched a large rocket that will be used to build the nation’s own space station. This first-ever launch took place on May 5. Despite the new coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government of Xi Jinping aims to boost the country’s national prestige by working toward becoming a “space superpower” that rivals the U.S.
Launching first rocket to build a space station
“This is the prelude”
On May 5, the last day of Japan’s Golden Week holidays, China launched the Long March-5B rocket, which has the largest carrying capacity of any in China, from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China’s island province of Hainan. The state-run media broadcast on the Internet live coverage of the nearly 54-meter-long fuselage soaring up into the evening sky.
The 22-ton next-generation spaceship mounted on the rocket entered orbit and later parachuted down on a field in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region as scheduled on May 8. During a press conference on May 5, a representative of the Chinese space development authority said flushed with joy: “This is the prelude to the construction of a space station in orbit. We’ve entered the third phase of our crewed space program.”
China initiated its crewed space program in 1992 and has been following a three-phase process. The country has succeeded in both the first phase of launching its first crewed spaceflight and the second phase of stationing astronauts at an experimental facility.
In the third phase, China aims to complete the assembly of the Tiangong space station in orbit by around 2022. The country also plans to launch the Long March-5B and other rockets 11 times over the next three years to transport a spaceship, which will become the core of a space station, and experimental modules into orbit.
The Tiangong weighs roughly 90 tons in total, which is less than a quarter of the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs more than 400 tons and is owned by Japan, the U.S., Russia, and other nations. The U.S. government, however, plans to discontinue its funding for the ISS at the end of 2024, casting uncertainty over the future of the ISS. The completion of the Tiangong could create a situation in which China “monopolizes” crewed space activities in 2025 and onward.
Rushing to accumulate technologies
On the 50th anniversary of the launch of China’s first satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1, on April 24, Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a letter to the scientists who had participated in the mission. He reiterated in the letter: “China must climb the highest peak of space technology and achieve its great dream of becoming a space superpower.”
In mid-January, China announced that the country would launch rockets “more than 40 times” this year. If achieved, China will have launched more rockets than any other country in the world for the third consecutive year since 2018. China must quickly accumulate technologies by repeatedly launching rockets in order to challenge the U.S. for supremacy in space development. The new coronavirus outbreak seems to have not impacted the country’s goal.
China’s launch of Long March rockets failed on both March 16 and April 9, the same time that preparations were underway to launch the Long March-5B rocket. Chinese media emphasized that the engineers of the Long March-5B rocket had overcome the pressure of the new coronavirus outbreak and the two failed rocket launches.
According to Aviation Daily, the fuselage [of the Long March-5B] arrived at the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Feb. 5, after Chinese New Year, but engineers who tried to return to the center from their hometowns were quarantined at nearby hotels and other accommodation facilities, causing a shortage of staff for the Long March-5B launch. The newspaper reported the rocket was assembled with the help of members of another rocket team.
Launching the “Wuhan” satellite to play up victory over new coronavirus
According to the online edition of China’s Global Times and other sources, a communications satellite named “Wuhan” was launched on a small rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in western China in the morning of May 12. The launch was intended to play up the containment of the new coronavirus outbreak both domestically and internationally.
The “Wuhan” satellite and the rocket were reportedly developed and manufactured in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, where the new coronavirus first broke out. The rocket’s fuselage features an illustration representing doctors and nurses in face masks treating patients.
This year, China will launch its first Mars probe. The probe is expected to reach Mars in about seven months. The country envisages exploring Mars to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party next year. The project was named “Tianwen-1” in April, quoting a poem written by ancient poet Qu Yuan of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. China also plans to launch the Chang’e 5 lunar probe to retrieve samples from the moon’s surface.
China will launch the 55th satellite of its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, which China has independently developed. The BeiDou system, which rivals the U.S.’s GPS (Global Positioning System), has already begun offering services. But China says the 55th satellite represents the “completion” of the placement of satellites in orbit. The BeiDou system is used for guiding ballistic missiles, leading to the speculation that the system’s accuracy for military purposes will improve further.