Two Missions for China’s Space Program

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SHANGHAI — Yang Yuguang, a researcher for the state-run spacecraft builder China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., had finished his presentation on new orbiting module components, including a locking system for dockings and a space station water recycler, when a man at the back of the conference room raised his hand.

“Can I buy that?” the man blurted.

“It will be a pleasure for us to sell these products on the international market,” Yang replied.

This brief exchange May 21 here at a conference of the International Academy of Astronautics and the Chinese Society of Astronautics highlighted the dual-track nature of China’s robust space program.

Rolled out in recent years on the program’s track for science and discovery were Long March rockets, four manned spaceflights, the now-orbiting Tiangong space station, an asteroid rendezvous project and scores of satellites including a constellation for a soon-to-be global Beidou navigation system.

Liftoff for China’s next manned spaceflight, Shenzhou 10, could come as early as late May, and China’s first lunar lander with a robotic rover, to be delivered by a Chang’e 3 probe, is slated to launch in the fall.

Meanwhile, on the program’s commercial track, China has continued to roll out a growing range of products and services, from antennas and imagers to payload launch services and satellite systems that can be orbitally delivered with complementary tracking bases on the ground.

Conference participants heard Yang introduce a half-dozen products. Later they heard a more subtle pitch from Lin Jianfeng, a deputy research director at the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), who described China’s rockets and orbital delivery services.

Lin said SAST, one of two government agencies in charge of orbital deliveries, has used Long March rockets to deploy more than 70 domestic and customer satellites. Last year’s launches include an Earth observation satellite for the government of Turkey and a maritime tracking satellite for LuxSpace, a Luxembourg-based satellite builder owned by OHB AG of Germany.

Also last year, China sold and installed a $35 million ground tracking system for Venezuela as part of what the Caracas government said was a $145 million package deal for an Earth observation satellite, VRSS-1, that launched in September. VRSS-1 was the second satellite China built for Brazil. The first, a telecommunications satellite dubbed Simon Bolivar, launched in 2008.

SAST offers “convenient and high-quality launch services for international users,” Lin said. He also emphasized “reliability at a reasonable cost.”

To date, Lin said, China has launched 179 Long March series rockets. He said the next generation of rockets — the “green propulsion” Long March 5 and Long March 6, powered by liquid oxygen-kerosene fuel — are expected to be ready for launch by 2015.

Lin said the new rockets’ advantages include a shorter time frame for launch preparations and a high-performance propulsion system. Up to four payloads can ride on a single vehicle. But older members of the Long March family could continue to be used if that is what launch customers demand.

The commercial track for China’s space program also has included the development of hyperspectral remote sensing satellites with the capacity to identify layers of valuable minerals underground and evaluate the seasonal progress of farm crops, said Zhu Weiguo, a SAST senior engineer. His presentation included a satellite image of a swath of Tibet where minerals have been detected from space. 

Zhu also described noncommercial applications for the hyperspectral-device satellites. They can, for example, track coal and factory emissions and monitor water sources including glaciers.

“The goal is to have precise Earth observations,” he said. 

What is unclear, however, is whether Chinese government agencies will use hyperspectral remote sensing satellites to, for example, enforce air pollution standards. The project to build the system began in 2007, Zhu said, but the first fully equipped satellite will not be ready for launch until at least 2016.

“The applications can be very large,” Zhu said. “The question is, who will pay?”