The First Chinese Crew is Busy on their New Space Station

On Thursday, June 17th, China took another major step in its ongoing drive to become a superpower in space. Just two months after the core module of the Tiangong space station (literally, “Heavenly Palace”) was sent to orbit, the three astronauts that will be the station’s first crew launched to space. The mission, Shenzhou 12, lifted off atop a Long March-2F rocket at 09:22 p.m. on Wednesday evening local time (09:22 a.m. EDT; 06:22 a.m. PDT) from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert.

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China and Russia Announce their Future Plans for the Moon, Including a Human Base

In the coming years, multiple space agencies will be sending astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the closing days of the Apollo Program. For NASA, this will represent the long-awaited “return to the Moon,” while every other space agency will see it as a tremendous step for their space programs. One thing they all have in common is that this time around, the goal is to build the necessary infrastructure that will allow for a long-term human presence.

However, amid all the excitement of this approaching moment in history are concerns about the lack of an international framework that will ensure our efforts are for the sake of “for all humankind.” Whereas NASA is seeking partners for its Artemis Program through bilateral agreements, Russia and China are pursuing an agreement of their own. They call it the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), and they too are looking for partners in this endeavor.

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China’s Super-Heavy Lift Rocket Will Carry 100 Tons to the Moon

China’s proposed next-generation rocket reached the final stage of feasibility studies this month. The planned launch vehicle, known as the Long March-9, will be capable of sending 100 tons to the Moon, and could see its first launch as early as 2030.

Announced in 2018, the Long March-9 will play a key role in China’s long-term space ambitions. If all goes as planned, its first payload is likely to be a Martian sample return mission, and it would support China’s Lunar ambitions as well. Another proposed use for the super-heavy lift vehicle is to build an experimental space-based solar power station, although plans for that project are still very tentative.

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China’s New Reusable Spaceplane Lands After 2 Days in Space

On Friday, Sept. 4th, China launched a new and mysterious spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The nature (and even appearance) of the spacecraft remains unknown, but according to statements made by Chinese authorities, it’s a reusable spaceplane. This vehicle is essentially China’s answer to the USAF/USSF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), which made its sixth launch to space (OTV-6) back in late-May.

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China is Building a Floating Spaceport for Rocket Launches

In the near future, launch facilities located at sea are expected to be a lot more common. SpaceX announced that it is hoping to create offshore facilities in the near future for the sake of launching the Starship away from populated areas. And China, the latest member of the superpowers-in-space club, is currently building the “Eastern Aerospace Port” off the coast of Haiyang city in the eastern province of Shandong.

This mobile launch facility is being developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s largest aerospace and defense contractor. Once fully operational, it will be used to launch light vehicles, as well as for building and maintaining rockets, satellites, and related space applications. As China’s fifth launch facility, it will give the country’s space program a new degree of flexibility.

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China’s New Crew Capsule Just Landed, and so Did Parts of their New Rocket!

China’s next-generation crewed spacecraft, which will replace the venerable Shenzou spacecraft in the coming years, recently returned to Earth after spending almost three days in space. The purpose of this mission was to test the deep space capabilities of the spacecraft that will be sending Chinese astronauts (taikonauts) to orbit, to the Moon, and beyond in the coming years.

In addition, this mission also saw China’s new Long March 5B (CZ-5B) heavy-lift rocket launch a payload to space for the first time. This rocket is the latest installment in the Long March family and will be vital to the creation of the third and largest Chinese space station. These two milestones have brought China a step closer to becoming a full-fledged superpower in space.

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The Impact Site of China’s Longjiang-2 Spacecraft has Been Found on the Moon

On May 20th, 2018, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) launched the Queqiao spacecraft, the vehicle that would deliver the Chang’e-4 mission to the Moon. This vehicle was also responsible for transporting a lesser-known mission to the Moon, known as the Longjiang twin spacecraft. This package consisted of two satellites designed to fly in formation and validate technologies for low-frequency radio astronomy.

While Queqiao flew beyond the Moon to act as a communications relay for the Chang’e-4 lander, the Longjiang satellites were to enter orbit around the moon. On July 31st, 2019, after more than a year in operation, the Longjiang-2 satellite deorbited crashed on the lunar surface. And thanks to efforts spacecraft tracker Daniel Estévez and his colleagues, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was able to photograph the impact site.

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China’s Tiangong 2 was Destroyed Last Week, Burning up in the Atmosphere Over the South Pacific Ocean

On Friday, July 19th, China’s Tiangong-2 (“Heavenly Palace”) space laboratory successfully entered Earth’s atmosphere under controlled conditions and burned up above the South Pacific Ocean. This marked the successful completion of all of Tiangong-2’s tasks, which constituted China’s second attempt at testing their capability to conduct research and human operations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

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There’s Life on the Moon! China’s Lander Just Sprouted the First Plants

China's Chang'e-4 lander on the lunar surface. Image Credit: CNSA/CLEP

It’s official, for the first time ever, scientists have found a living organism on the Moon! Well, not so much found, we put it there. But the implications are immense nonetheless! According to photos and a statement released by the China National Space Administration this week (Mon. Jan. 14th), the Chang’e-4 mission’s Lunar Micro Ecosystem (LME) experiment has produced its first sprouted plant.

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Here’s How to Follow the De-Orbit of Tiangong-1, now Estimated to Happen Between March 30 and April 2

China’s Tiangong-1 space station has been the focus of a lot of international attention lately. In 2016, after four and half years in orbit, this prototype space station officially ended its mission. By September of 2017, the Agency acknowledged that the station’s orbit was decaying and that it would fall to Earth later in the year. Since then, estimates on when it will enter out atmosphere have been extended a few times.

According to satellite trackers, it was predicted that the station would fall to Earth in mid-March. But in a recent statement (which is no joke) the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) has indicated that Tiangong-1 will fall to Earth around April 1st – aka. April Fool’s Day. While the agency and others insists that it is very unlikely, there is a small chance that the re-entry could lead to some debris falling to Earth.

For the sake of ensuring public safety, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space Debris Office (SDO) has been providing regular updates on the station’s decay. According to the SDO, the reentry window is highly variable and spans from the morning of March 31st to the afternoon of April 1st (in UTC time). This works out to the evening of March 30th or March 31st for people living on the West Coast.

The possible re-entry region of the Tiangong-1 space station, indicated in green. Credit: ESA/SDO

As the ESA stated on their rocket science blog:

“Reentry will take place anywhere between 43ºN and 43ºS. Areas above or below these latitudes can be excluded. At no time will a precise time/location prediction from ESA be possible. This forecast was updated approximately weekly through to mid-March, and is now being updated every 1~2 days.”

In other words, if any debris does fall to the surface, it could happen anywhere from the Northern US, Southern Europe, Central Asia or China to the tip of Argentina/Chile, South Africa, or Australia. Basically, it could land just about anywhere on the planet. On the other hand, back in January, the US-based Aerospace Corporation released a comprehensive analysis on Tiangong-1s orbital decay.

Their analysis included a map (shown below) which illustrated the zones of highest risk. Whereas the blue areas (that make up one-third of the Earth’s surface) indicate zones of zero probability, the green area indicates a zone of lower probability. The yellow areas, meanwhile, indicates zones that have a higher probability, which extend a few degrees south of 42.7° N and north of 42.7° S latitude, respectively.

The Aerospace Corporations predicted reentry for Tiangong-1. Credit: aerospace.org

The Aerospace Corporation has also created a dashboard for tracking Tiangong-1 (which is refreshed every few minutes) and has come to similar conclusions about the station’s orbital decay. Their latest prediction is that the station will descend into our atmosphere on April 1st, at 04:35 UTC (March 30th 08:35 PST), with a margin of error of about 24 hours – in other words, between March 30th to April 2nd.

And they are hardly alone when it comes to monitoring Tiangong-1’s orbit and predicting its descent. The China Human Spaceflight Agency (CMSA) recently began providing daily updates on the orbital status of Tiangong-1. As they reported on March 28th: “Tiangong-1 stayed at an average altitude of about 202.3 km. The estimated reentry window is between 31 March and 2 April, Beijing time.”

The US Space Surveillance Network, which is responsible for tracking artificial objects in Earth’s orbit, has also been monitoring Tiangong-1 and providing daily updates. Based on their latest tracking data, they estimate that the station will enter our atmosphere no later than midnight on April 3rd.

Naturally, one cannot help but notice that these predictions vary and are subject to a margin of error. In addition, trackers cannot say with any accuracy where debris – if any – will land on the planet. As Max Fagin – an aerospace engineer and space camp alumni – explained in a recent Youtube video (posted below), all of this arises from two factors: the station’s flight path and the Earth’s atmosphere.

Basically, the station is still moving at a velocity of 7.8 km/sec (4.8 mi/s) horizontally while it is descending by about 3 cm/sec. In addition, the Earth’s atmosphere shrinks and expands throughout the day in response to the Sun’s heating, which results in changes in air resistance. This makes the process of knowing where the station’s will make its descent difficult to predict, not to mention where debris could fall.

However, as Fagin goes on to explain, once the station reaches an altitude of 150 km (93 mi) – i.e. within the Thermosphere – it will begin falling much faster. At that point, it be much easier to determine where debris (if any) will fall. However, as the ESA, CNSA, and other trackers have emphasized repeatedly, the odds of any debris making it to the surface is highly unlikely.

If any debris does survive re-entry, it is also statistically likely to fall into the ocean or in a remote area – far away from any population centers. But in all likelihood, the station will break up completely in our atmosphere and produce a beautiful streaking effect across the sky. So if you’re checking the updates regularly and are in a part of the world where it can be seen, be sure to get outside and see it!

Further Reading: GB Times