The launch of a rocket carrying China’s Chang’e-5 lunar probe underscored Beijing’s progress towards its “space dream” – © AFP
The arrival of three astronauts on Saturday at China’s new space station marks a historic milestone in its space ambitions, its longest crewed mission to date.
The world’s second-largest economy has invested billions in its military space program, hoping to have a permanently manned space station by 2022 and eventually send humans to the moon.
The country has come a long way to catch up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration.
Here is an overview of the Chinese space program and its direction:
– Mao’s wish –
Shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong said, “We too will make satellites.
It took more than a decade, but in 1970, China launched its first satellite on a Long March rocket.
Human spaceflight lasted decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming China’s first “taikonaut” in 2003.
As the launch neared, concerns over the viability of the mission led Beijing to cancel a live TV show at the last minute.
But it turned out well, with Yang orbiting Earth 14 times during a 21-hour flight aboard the Shenzhou 5.
China has launched seven manned missions since.
– Space station and ‘Jade Rabbit’ –
Following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia, China has plans to build its own space station around the planet.
The Tiangong-1 laboratory was launched in 2011.
In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, gave a video lesson from inside the space module to children in the world’s most populous country.
The craft was also used for medical experiments and, above all, tests intended to prepare for the construction of a space station.
This was followed by the “Jade Rabbit” lunar rover in 2013, which first appeared to be a misfire when it became inactive and stopped sending signals to Earth.
However, he made a dramatic recovery, eventually monitoring the Moon’s surface for 31 months, well beyond its expected lifespan.
In 2016, China launched its second orbital laboratory, the Tiangong-2. Astronauts who visited the station conducted experiments on growing rice and other plants.
– ‘Dream of space’ –
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream” have been strained.
China is finally looking to catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly reaching their milestones.
Besides a space station, China is also planning to build a base on the moon, and the country’s National Space Administration has announced plans to launch a manned lunar mission by 2029.
But lunar work suffered a setback in 2017 when the Long March-5 Y2, a powerful heavy-lift rocket, failed to embark on a mission to send communications satellites into orbit.
This forced the postponement of the launch of Chang’e-5, originally scheduled to collect samples from the Moon in the second half of 2017.
Another robot, the Chang’e-4, landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019, a historic first.
This was followed by one who landed on the near face of the Moon last year, hoisting a Chinese flag on the lunar surface.
The unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth in December with rocks and soil – the first lunar samples collected in four decades.
And in February 2021, the first images of Mars were returned by the five-ton Tianwen-1, which then landed a rover on the Martian surface in May that has since started exploring the surface of the Red Planet.
– Palace in the sky –
A trio of astronauts successfully docked on Saturday at the Tianhe central module of the Chinese space station, which was placed in orbit on April 29.
The astronauts are expected to stay at the station for six months, China’s longest crewed mission to date and double the length of the first crewed mission to Tiangong completed earlier this year.
China’s Tiangong space station – which means “heavenly palace” – will need a total of around 11 missions to bring more parts and assemble them into orbit.
When complete, it is expected to remain in low earth orbit between 400 and 450 kilometers (250 and 280 miles) above our planet for at least 10 years, fulfilling the ambition of maintaining a long-term human presence in the space.
While China does not plan to use its space station for global cooperation on the scale of the International Space Station, Beijing has said it is open to foreign collaboration.
It is not yet clear what the extent of this cooperation will be.