Like the rest of the world, China does not have enough money to do everything its engineers would like to do in space. Ge Chang-Chun, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is a researcher in space solar power (SSP), says his nation's human spaceflight and robotic Moon-exploration programs are gaining most of the civil-space funding today.
The Chinese government has heard Ge's arguments for SSP as a solution to the country's energy and clean-air needs and has granted some support. But that support falls short of the level that would be needed to begin operational power generation in the 2030s, as Ge and his colleagues believe is feasible. Even with China's perceived deep pockets, SSP is not the only ambitious space project sitting on the back burner there.
Technical presentations at the annual IAC usually afford a good idea of worldwide trends in space exploration. China took advantage of the Beijing session this year to expand its presence in international space circles, offering hundreds of papers that show a range of space activity that has not always been apparent. The work showcased makes clear that China is active in most of the same areas as the rest of the spacefaring world, with the Moon and Mars clearly set as first-order exploration goals.
China is pushing ahead with its third robotic mission to the Moon, planning to launch Chang'e-3 before the end of the year with a lander/rover combination on board. The flight will build on the success of Chang'e-2, which expanded China's envelope by leaving lunar orbit for visits to the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point and an approach to the asteroid 4179 Toutatis within 800 meters (2,625 ft.), which required sophisticated navigation, four course corrections and China's first use of X-band communications for deep-space missions.
“Based on the innovative design, overall demonstration, elaborate implementation, usage of residual propellant, Chang'e-2 explored Moon, L2 point and then Toutatis asteroid, realizing the international-level exploration of multiple objectives and multiple missions, while achieving the purpose of 'faster, better, cheaper,' which was far beyond our expectations,” said Huang Jiangchuan, who led the IAC presentation on the mission.
Chang'e-3 will continue China's push for advanced technologies and operational techniques in robotic exploration. Based on Chinese publications, U.S. analyst Dwayne Day believes the lander/rover will be solar-powered but will use radioisotope heaters to protect its electronics during the lunar nighttime. The rover will be teleoperated by drivers in China who are training for the job with simulations built up from digital maps available for the Bay of Rainbows landing site by adding “craters and rocks on it randomly,” according to Peng Deyun of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.
Mars is the ultimate destination, for China and the other human-spaceflight nations today. Russia left China's piggyback Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter stranded in Earth orbit along with the Phobos Grunt probe after its Nov. 8, 2011, launch on a Zenit 2-SB rocket, but planning continues in China on a number of fronts for red planet exploration.
Some concepts for human missions to Mars were presented at the IAC, but nearer-term robotic spaceflight was a key area of focus. One concept presented by Beijing's Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology called for a “plural mode” mission that would combine an orbiter and rover with three surface penetrators and a balloon carrying instruments for in-situ atmospheric research.
Set for launch in 2024 on the planned Long March 5 rocket from the new launch center being built on Hainan Island (see photo, page 52), the mission would target the Nilosyrtis Mensae region where clays discovered from orbit make it a promising site for evidence of past life. Gale Crater, where NASA's Curiosity rover is operating, is a backup landing site in the Chinese plans.