China’s Space Program Is Taking Off

By Frank Morring, Jr., Bradley Perrett, Amy Svitak
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Scientists at Beihang University in Beijing are working on a concept to send a small piggyback satellite into Mars orbit “hitching” on a larger spacecraft that would image the planet's surface. The Chinese experts calculate that, once jettisoned into an elliptical orbit around Mars, the secondary spacecraft could image the moon Deimos during more than 280 flybys over a service life available in the 2016 Earth-Mars planetary launch window. It could also work with the main spacecraft on studies of the planet's atmosphere, according to the Beihang paper.

Chinese researchers are also investigating dust removal from surface-vehicle solar arrays; advanced navigation for entry, descent and landing on Mars; and a concept for formation-flying a constellation of linked smallsats in a fractionated approach to orbital observation of Mars.

While China's human spaceflight program remains focused on launching, building and operating the planned Tiangong space station in the coming decade, the nation is clearly interested in deep-space human exploration, as evidenced by IAC presentations. Near-term, researchers at the Lanzhou Institute of Physics are examining different ways to seal lunar samples for return to Earth, mindful of the difficulty with sample seals caused by abrasive lunar dust during the Apollo landings.

For the longer term, Chinese scientists and engineers are looking into human-factors issues of long-term spaceflight, including both life sciences and psychology. A group from the Astronaut Research and Training Center of China presented partial results on reaction-time testing from the Shenzhou 9 mission, while researchers outlined mood effects on the crew of the Mars 500 analog experiment in Moscow, which included a Chinese subject. Experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been conducting ground-based experiments designed to simulate space radiation to better understand its effects.

“[D]ata of space environment effects and psychological changes will be systematically collected and accumulated, a human system risk evaluation system will be established more perfectly, and innovative protection techniques will be developed,” stated Li Yinghui, of the Astronaut Research and Training Center. “Therefore, it will facilitate the theoretical and technical reserves for long-term spaceflight and promote the unceasing development of manned spaceflight projects.”

Proceedings at the IAC indicated the wide range of space-research activities underway in China: an intelligent remote sensor for deep-space exploration that can automatically adjust for conditions too ephemeral for long-distance commands to capture; an interior free-flyer to isolate microgravity experiments from space station vibrations; the use of Tai Chi training to mitigate space-environment effects on brain function; and the use of a hybrid rocket burning hydroxyl terminated polybutadiene as fuel to ignite a scramjet in a rocket-based, combined-cycle propulsion system for lower-cost space launch.

Like NASA, a handful of commercial companies and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Chinese engineers are studying the use of robotics for on-orbit spacecraft servicing, refueling and recycling. Students at the School of Aerospace Engineering at the Beijing Institute of Technology are proposing a concept that would base robotic servicing spacecraft at a space station, where they would await calls and return for replenishment.

Aerospace Dongfanghong Development Ltd., based in Shenzhen, has developed a concept for a “micro-satellite swarm robot servicing system” of five small spacecraft. One would serve as a communications hub, two would monitor ongoing work and two—equipped with pairs of robotic arms—would handle the teleoperated servicing.

The company made no secret that it is drawing heavily on work presented at other public international conferences and in technical publications from the U.S. and Japan. Moreover, top officials of China's human spaceflight organization met their counterparts from Europe, Russia and Canada at the IAC to push an agenda of international cooperation.

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