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Is China The Next Space ‘Superpower?’

Aug 30, 2016 05:33 AM EDT
Long March
China might have kept silent about its space program for years, but its recent developments could indicate that it is a force to be reckoned with.
(Photo : DLR / Wikimedia Commons)

China may have entered the race late, but already it is fast becoming a major space player.

Last June, one of China's most powerful rockets called Long March 7 blasted off at the Wenchang launch site. Last week, the country also revealed its 2020 Mars probe. While China has shrouded its space programs in secrecy, the series of major feats could indicate that this generation will witness the rise of a new space "superpower."

"China is developing very rapidly into one of the major space players," Fabio Favata, head of the program coordination office at the European Space Agency's (ESA) directorate of science, said in a report by The Guardian.

Apart from the rocket launch and Mars probe, China also launched the world's first-ever "hack proof" quantum communications satellite. Moreover, the country is also preparing a new rocket, the Long March-5, which is made of engines capable of producing a thrust of over 1,000 tons during take off. The rocket will be used to launch China's still unnamed Mars 2020 probe and the Chang'e-5 lunar probe in 2017.

In 2013, China successfully completed its longest manned space mission when the Shenzhuo-10 spacecraft docked with the orbiting space lab Tiangong-1 and landed in Mongolia. The country also plans to launch a large manned space station - the Tiangong-2 - into orbit. Though relatively smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), the Tiangong space station will have the same capacity.

"You will see the Chinese quite visibly begin to match the capacity of the other spacefaring powers by 2020," Brian Harvey, space analyst and author of "China in Space: The Great Leap Forward," told The Guardian.

China is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) for a number of missions, including the Cluster mission to study space weather and the Double Star, which is China's first scientific satellite. China and ESA are now working on a new mission, the Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE), which is planned to be launched in 2021.

"We are the newcomers in space science, and don't have much experience," Wang Chi of the National Space Science Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told The Guardian. "International collaborations are the shortcut for China to catch up with the world. In addition, science, especially space science, should be the responsibility of all humans around the globe. International collaboration is the effective way to obtain the maximum science return from any space mission."

U.S. as one of the Space-Faring Leaders 

"[U.S. space technology is still] hands down the best in the world," Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said in a report by CNN. However, according to Johnson-Freese, the U.S. lacks "the political will to fund an ambitious manned spaceflight program," whereas China takes pride at this.

"In terms of perception, America has already ceded its leadership in exploration to China," she added.

In 2011, U.S. Congress had banned NASA from working bilaterally with anyone from the Chinese space program in due to security concerns, which is said to be the reason the ISS is not allowed to house astronauts from China. 

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