China’s space program faces another setback
China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, is out of control and will crash back to Earth in the coming months. Traveling at terminal velocity, the flaming debris could kill people or damage buildings on impact.
Chinese ground control lost contact with the Tiangong-1 in September 2016 and reported that the 19-ton space station had entered a decaying orbit. Authorities predict the nonfunctioning heap of space junk will reenter Earth’s atmosphere between now and early 2018.
Some experts view this as another setback for a space program that is closely linked to China’s military and that operates in relative isolation and with a mixed record of success.
‘‘There is a small risk that it will land on top of someone’s house,” said Dr. Chad Ohlandt, senior space engineer at the Rand Corp. “This would obviously be a PR [public relations] fiasco. But as it gets closer and closer, the predictions will get better, and as they narrow down the time, they will know where it will actually reenter from.‘‘
The most likely scenario has the space station burning up after it contacts the atmosphere, with a few pieces reaching Earth, Ohlandt explained to FORUM. Its impending loss comes as little surprise for the Chinese space administration, he added.
“Technically, Tiangong-1 is a prototype which has accomplished its mission,” Ohlandt said. “Now Tiangong-2 is up there, and China is planning to have more of them in the future.’’
China’s space program, one of President Xi Jinping’s most ambitious projects, experienced a serious failure in June 2017 with the launch of its second Long March-5, a heavy-load rocket that broke up shortly after takeoff, preventing its satellite payload from reaching orbit. China had planned to use the same rocket type to carry its latest lunar probe to the Moon later in 2017 to collect samples.
With a load capacity of 25 metric tons, a reliable heavy-lift rocket of this variety could enable China to follow U.S. successes in deploying large, high-performance satellites, establishing a full-size space station, landing humans on the moon or sending robots to Mars. (Pictured: A Chinese Long March-5 rocket failed soon after it launched from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Wenchang, Hainan Province, China, on July 2, 2017.)
Yang Baohua, vice president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., said at a Beijing news briefing on November 9, 2017, that the Long March-5 would return to flight in 2018 carrying another next-generation satellite like the one that was lost in 2017. He added that China will attempt its first sea launch for commercial and international payloads next year, a capability that would allow light, low-latitude launches.
China is developing a reusable spacecraft, which is slated to be tested by 2020, which could help it come closer to competing with NASA and such private space companies as SpaceX or Blue Origin in the marketplace.
“Bottom line is, how much does the Chinese launch capability disrupt the commercial market as it’s developing in today’s world?” Ohland said. “That’s a hard question to answer.’’
He added that China’s aim to become a major space power has ramifications beyond technological and commercial advancement as it also constitutes a global security risk.
“All space technology is dual use,” Ohland said. “Anything you put up there could be used as a weapon; ICBMs are essentially space systems for short periods of time.’’
Chinese use of U.S. rocket technology for potential military use prompted the U.S. to effectively bar China’s participation in the international space station effort in 2000, Ohland said, leaving China to go it alone into space.
“On one hand, they’re a couple decades behind us,” Ohland concluded. “On the other hand, there’s no one else even close. This is not something that just any country could decide to do and invest in it if they wanted to. It takes significant resources, which China has, and so they’re developing space technology, particularly human space technologies.”
Hamid Sellak is a FORUM contributor reporting from Malaysia.