China’s space program is growing more ambitious by the month and, in an effort to keep things moving the eastern nation successfully launched its most powerful rocket this last weekend. The near 170-foot-long Long March 7 rocket launched a number of smaller satellites into orbit as well as a dummy version of its new crew capsule in a demonstration of the nation’s most powerful rocket.
China’s space station to launch in the 2020s
China has not hidden its space ambitions and showed off one of its three new boosters which will ultimately be responsible of the launch of its planned, and first-crewed space station, the Tiangong-3. The rocket, by design, is capable of lifting about 15 tons into orbit but will pale in its payload delivery if the Long March 5 is a success when tested later this year. The Long March 5 is purported to have a payload capacity of 55,000 pounds.
China is presently able to launch rockets from four separate locations with this weekend’s launch taking place at its southernmost location, the newly built Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. Due to its proximity to the equator, the Long March 7 required about $6 million less in fuel to see the rocket propelled skyward. In this case, the Chinese also used a more expensive and superior fuel made of liquid oxygen and kerosene rather than the cheaper, more toxic and volatile hypergolic-based fuels that have powered Chinese rockets and ballistic missiles for decades.
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The Long March 7 is expected to be the workhorse of the Chinese space program when it comes to supplying its first manned space station, a 60 ton upgrade to the Taingong-1 (unmanned) which was launched five years ago. The station is slated to be in operation sometime between 2020 and 2023.
Hainan Island is perfect
The Hainan island launch pad, in addition to saving money, allows the Chinese space agency to use boats to bring rockets to the site. The other three locations: Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert, Xichang near Chengdu, and Taiyuan near Beijing are outfitted by rail and are limited by the curvatures of the tracks as well as the width of tunnels.
In addition to the satellites launched this weekend, a scaled-down version of China’s new crew capsule was launched and later recovered on the steppes of Inner Mongolia.
The new capsules will replace the Shenzhou capsules that China built off the Russian Soyuz and will allow for a larger crew as well as potential moon and Mars landings.
Speaking of the scaled down capsule, The China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) said, “It was designed to collect aerodynamic and heat data for a re-entry capsule, to verify key technologies such as detachable thermal protection structure and lightweight metal materials manufacturing, and to carry out blackout telecommunication tests.”
The successful recovery of the scale model laid a solid foundation for the design and development of the next-generation manned spacecraft,” said CMSE.
The U.S. government banned the Chinese from the use of the International Space Station. That, however, seems to not bother China and the country has reiterated its willingness to let UN countries conduct experiments on its space station when operational.
The China Manned Space Agency and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) announced a partnership late last year which could see astronauts from other countries staying at the space station.
“This is an exciting opportunity to further build the space capacity of developing countries and increase understanding of the benefits space can bring to humankind,” said UNOOSA director Simonetta Di Pippo.
Ahead of the fully operational space station, China will launch the launch space lab Tiangong-2 to gain experience ahead of the Tiangong-3 launch.
That launch is planned for September and will ultimately house astronauts when fully operational.
This weekend’s launch was the first that allowed spectators, like Cape Canaveral, in public viewing areas designed to accommodate as many as 25,000 spectators on the island dubbed “China’s Hawaii.”