Asia | Security & Defence | Articles | Space

shenzhou | change | tiangong | cnsa

From Soviet aid to degree program with the US to exploit asteroid mineral wealth

The arrival of a Chinese spacecraft on the far side of the moon has brought world public opinion to focus on China's space programme, which is more developed than many had imagined. Aided by the Soviets in the early days, the Chinese are now ahead in some programmes (probably more apparent than real, given certain setbacks), such as development for a permanent space station of their own, and are competing with the United States in their desire to exploit the mineral wealth of asteroids.

Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre

Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre [CNSA] ▲ Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre [CNSA].

article / Sebastián Bruzzone [English version] [Englishversion].

The origins of the Chinese space programme1 can be traced back to the beginning of the Cold War, at the height of the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union over the control of international politics. Since 1955, Chairman Mao Zedong had been seeking the respect of the world powers and decided to follow in the footsteps of his neighbour, the USSR. In March of the following year, the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defence began the development of a first ballistic missile (Chinese Twelve-Year Aerospace Plan). Following the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in 1957, Mao turned to the development of a Chinese artificial satellite that would be active in space two years later (project 581), in a material and financial effort supported by the Soviet Union. However, in the early 1960s, the USSR withdrew all its economic and technological attendance following Beijing's accusation that the first secretary of the CPSU's Central committee Secretary Nikita Khrushchev was a revisionist and wanted to restore capitalism.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is the manager for space programmes. China's first manned space flight took place in 2003, with Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, which docked with the Tiangong-1 space station. China thus became the third nation to send men out of the Earth. The main goal of the Shenzhou missions is the establishment of a permanent space station. To date, nine Chinese men and seven women have gone into space. 

Since 2007, China has shown a special interest in Luna. China's lunar exploration programme consists of four phases. In the first (Chang'e 1 and 2), carried out with CZ-3A, two unmanned lunar orbital probes were launched. The second (Chang'e 3 and 4), in 2013, with CZ-5/E, saw the first lunar landing of two rovers. The third (Chang'e 5 and 6) was executed in 2017 with CZ-5/E, consisting of lunar landing and sample return. The fourth, with CZ-7, is planned for 2024; it will consist of a manned mission statement and the deployment of permanentinstructions on the lunar surface.

The mission statement Chang'e 4 was launched on 8 December 2018 and landed on the lunar surface on 3 January 2019, in the Von Kárman crater (186 kilometres in diameter), in the southern hemisphere of the hidden side of the satellite. Images transmitted by the Yutu-2 rover showed that this never-before-explored lunar surface is densely perforated by impact craters and that its crust is thicker than the visible side. As part of a biological essay , a cotton seed could have been sprouted, but high radiation levels, lower-than-Earth gravity and abrupt temperature changes caused the cotton plant to succumb a few days later. Astronomers believe that the shadow side is shielded from interference from Earth, so that the evolution of stars and galaxies can be better studied from there.

In mid-2017, Chinese intentions to search for minerals that are scarce on Earth on the surface of asteroids, and if possible inside them, were made public. Within China's space programme, this particular topic occupies an important place. According to agreement with Ye Peijan, head of manager of the lunar exploration programme, China has been studying in recent years the possibility of running a mission statement to capture an asteroid and place it in the moon's orbit for mineral exploitation, or even to use it as a permanent space station, according to the South China Morning Post. The same manager has pointed out that there are asteroids and stars in the Solar System and close to our planet with a large amount of precious metals and other materials. The plan will be implemented from 2020 onwards. The CNSA will use the Tianzhou cargo spacecraft, as opposed to the manned Shenzhou exploration spacecraft whose main purpose is to establish a permanent space station, goal , or the Chang'e lunar mission spacecraft.

The cost of this futuristic plan would be extremely high, as it would involve the organisation of complex and high-risk missions, but interest will not wane, as it could be very profitable in the long run deadline and would yield billion-dollar benefits. According to Noah Poponak, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, a single asteroid could hold more than $50 billion in platinum, as well as other precious metals and water.

Capturing an asteroid first requires a spacecraft to land on its surface, to anchor itself. The spacecraft must have extremely powerful engines so that, when anchored, it will be able to drag the entire asteroid into the moon's orbit. Such thrusters, powerful enough to move a rock weighing thousands of tonnes, do not yet exist. Ye Peijan has warned that the technology needed for such a space experiment could take 40 years or so to develop. For the time being, in March 2017 China announced in the official press that it intended to send probes into the cosmos to study the trajectories and characteristics of some asteroids. In doing so, it is directly skill with NASA, which is also developing a programme aimed at an asteroid.

Tiangong-1 was China's first space shuttle, laboratory , launched into orbit in 2011, with a length of 10.5 metres, a diameter of 3.4 metres and a weight of 8.5 tonnes. Its goal was to conduct experiments as part of China's space programme and to launch the permanent station that the CNSA aims to have in orbit by 2023. Against all odds, in 2016 the spacecraft's digital control was lost and it was destroyed in pieces over the Pacific Ocean, northwest of New Zealand. A second module, Tiangong-2, was launched in 2016 with the same objectives. On the other hand, China is making progress on the plan to establish a permanent space station. According to Yang Liwei, the central capsule will be launched in 2020 and the two experimental modules in the following two years, with manned missions and cargo spacecraft.

More blog entries