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China has given up on the US and rules out its astronauts setting foot on the Moon before 2027

The Space White Paper 2022-2026 offers a vision of Beijing's projects without including forecasts of its landing on the Earth's satellite
Xi Jinping's Space White Paper outlines projects that chart the way forward for China in the 2022-2026 five-year period and implicitly admits that Joe Biden's NASA will win the race to return to the Moon.

PHOTO/AP  -   Xi Jinping's Space White Paper outlines projects that chart the way forward for China in the 2022-2026 five-year period and implicitly admits that Joe Biden's NASA will win the race to return to the Moon.

With the arrival of the Chinese New Year on 1 February, Premier Li Keqiang's government has unveiled its space plans for the five-year period 2022-2026 in the newly released Space White Paper, an overview of where China's efforts are headed in its bid to position itself at the forefront of the outer space domain.

A compendium of the Chinese authorities' main plans for cosmos exploration over the next five years, it also aims to further strengthen China's "rapidly developing and profoundly transforming" space industry. Its ultimate goal is to turn China into "a space power, our eternal dream", according to President Xi Jinping in the preamble of the document, a strategic challenge for the United States.

With the moon as its main objective, Beijing is working on all fronts to send astronauts to Earth's natural satellite as soon as possible. But, mindful of reality, it admits that Washington has a wide lead and will not even attempt to do so until after 2026, the year in which the recently approved Five-Year Plan ends. 

La Agencia Espacial china va a practicar una cooperación internacional más abierta y activa para que terceros países se asocien al proyecto de Estación de Investigación Lunar Internacional liderada por Pekín y Moscú
PHOTO/CNSA - The Chinese space agency will practice more open and active international cooperation to bring third countries into the International Lunar Research Station project led by Beijing and Moscow.

The China National Space Administration, or CNSA - as Beijing's space agency is called - assumes that its attempts to race against the clock to put Chinese astronauts on the moon ahead of NASA are doomed to failure and has decided to give its rival a free hand. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has scheduled its first astronauts to return to the moon by 2025, provided there are no delays in getting its new SLS launcher up to speed.

Thus, the lunar projects approved by the Beijing authorities for the five-year period 2022-2026 are dedicated to the further development of new manned capsules, more powerful rocket engines, heavier launchers and descent modules. The tests and trials of all of these suggest that the assault on the moon will take place in the early 2030s. Perhaps even earlier, as 1 October 2029 marks the 80th anniversary of the creation of the People's Republic of China.

La astronauta Wang Yaping y sus dos compañeros han adornado la estación espacial en la que permanecen desde mediados de octubre para festejar el 1 de febrero la llegada del Año Nuevo chino
PHOTO/Xinhua - Astronaut Wang Yaping and her two companions have decorated the space station where they have been staying since mid-October to celebrate the arrival of the Chinese New Year on 1 February.
Completion of the space station by 2022

The most cherished goal of the CNSA, which has been headed by Professor Zhang Kejian since 2018, is to get Chinese astronauts to set foot on the moon, bring them back safely and make China the second world power to do so. But Beijing is not neglecting the other areas that encompass its enormous space ambitions. 

The White Paper confirms that its major short-term goal is to "complete the construction" of the Tiangong space station, orbiting at an altitude of 391 kilometres. Current projections are for the early docking of the Wentian laboratory, planned for liftoff this May, followed by the Mengtian laboratory in August or September.

Crews of three astronauts will remain on board for periods of about six months to conduct experiments and keep the orbital complex operational. The Xuntian telescope, capable of viewing in the ultraviolet, visible and infrared spectra, will be launched in 2024 and will be docked to the space station to allow astronauts to carry out maintenance work, a lesson learned from the Hubble space telescope. 

En órbita a 391 kilómetros de la Tierra, en mayo se acoplará el laboratorio Wentian y en agosto o septiembre el módulo Mengtian, con lo que el complejo orbital chino quedará casi completado, tal y como se muestra en la imagen
PHOTO/Xinhua - In orbit 391 kilometres from Earth, the Wentian laboratory will be docked in May and the Mengtian module in August or September, bringing the Chinese orbital complex to near completion, as shown in the picture.

In the framework of international collaboration, China proclaims that it will be "more open and active" in bilateral and multilateral cooperation. One example is the Chang'e-6 and Chang'e-7 robotic missions planned for 2024, which will include instruments from third countries and bring back lunar samples. Also the preparatory work for the International Lunar Research Station, a joint scientific base on the surface of Selene that Beijing and Moscow have planned for the mid-1930s, whose preliminary activities will begin in 2027 with the Chang'e-8 mission.

But the moon is not China's only major space objective, nor is the space station. The White Paper published on 28 January touts the CNSA's interest in space exploration, technology and applications. It wants to visit Jupiter, the outer reaches of the Solar System, near-Earth asteroids and comets, which requires upgrading its extensive space transportation system, which is based on the Long March family of expendable launch vehicles, both manned and unmanned. And to develop government and private reusable rockets.

El éxito de las misiones robóticas a Marte han dado paso a futuras misiones lunares Chang’e, nuevos proyectos científicos y al despliegue de redes de comunicaciones gubernamentales en órbita baja y alta
PHOTO/Xinhua - Successful robotic missions to Mars have led to future Chang'e lunar missions, new science projects and the deployment of government communications networks in low and high orbit.
New and improved launch bases

In parallel to the development of new launchers, "new launch pads will be built and the four existing bases will be upgraded". The CNSA aims to make them all more reliable, cost-effective and capable of supporting the frenetic pace of institutional and commercial launches they will be subjected to. It is worth remembering that in 2021, China launched 55 spacecraft into space. 

China stresses that it will "engage in dialogue" with Russia and the United States on the governance of the outer space environment under the UN framework and "participate" in the formulation of international norms "to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities".

El Libro Blanco contempla el desarrollo de lanzadores más pesados, nuevas cápsulas tripuladas y motores cohete más potentes, además de la construcción de nuevas rampas de despegue y la modernización de las ya existentes
PHOTO/China Daily - The White Paper envisages the development of heavier launchers, new manned capsules and more powerful rocket engines, as well as the construction of new launch pads and the modernisation of existing ones.

The document does not neglect to mention Beijing's interest in strengthening space traffic control, improving its early warning system and space debris tracking, as well as building a defence system against possible near-Earth object impacts.

Plans are also cited for renewing the extensive fleet of satellites of all types. There is a need to develop new geostationary microwave platforms to analyse the colour of the oceans and monitor the state of the atmosphere and the Earth's ecosystem. It also calls for the development of X-band interferometric synthetic aperture radars (InSARs) to monitor the volume of water resources in the vast country.

Desde el Centro de Control Espacial de Pekín se siguió segundo a segundo la misión de la sonda Chang’e-5, que a mediados de diciembre de 2020 trajo a la tierra 1.731 gramos de suelo lunar
PHOTO/Xinhua - The mission of the Chang'e-5 probe, which brought 1,731 grams of lunar soil to Earth in mid-December 2020, was followed second by second from the Space Control Centre in Beijing.

The White Paper includes a project to build a new government communications network in low and high orbit, and another to build new satellites for commercial applications. The Chinese authorities want to integrate both initiatives into a national positioning, navigation and timing system that is more extensive, powerful and accurate than the current Beidou, China's GPS.