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China’s Quest to Become a Space Science Superpower

Jul 26, 2017     Email"> PrintText Size

This Long March-7 rocket carried a cargo craft to the Tiangong-2 space lab in April. VCG/Getty

Time seems to move faster at the National Space Science Center on the outskirts of Beijing. Researchers are rushing around this brand-new compound of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in anticipation of the launch of the nation's first X-ray telescope. At mission control, a gigantic screen plays a looping video showcasing the country's major space milestones. Engineers focus intently on their computer screens while a state television crew orbits the room with cameras, collecting footage for a documentary about China's meteoric rise as a space power. The walls are festooned with motivational slogans. “Diligent and meticulous,” says one. “No single failure in 10,000 trials,” encourages another.

For director-general Wu Ji, this 19.4-hectare, 914-million-yuan (US$135-million) campus represents the coming of age of China's space-science efforts. In the past few decades, Wu says, China has built the capacity to place satellites and astronauts in orbit and send spacecraft to the Moon, but it has not done much significant research from its increasingly lofty vantage point. Now, that is changing. “As far as space science is concerned,” he says, “we are the new kid on the block.”

China is rushing to establish itself as a leader in the field. In 2013, a 1.2-tonne spacecraft called Chang'e-3 landed on the Moon, delivering a rover that used ground-penetrating radar to measure the lunar subsurface with unprecedented resolution. China's latest space lab, which launched in September 2016, carries more than a dozen scientific payloads. And four additional missions dedicated to astrophysics and other fields have been sent into orbit in the past two years, including a spacecraft that is conducting pioneering experiments in quantum communication.

These efforts, the work of the CAS and other agencies, have made an impact well beyond the country's borders. “The space-science programme in China is extremely dynamic and innovative,” says Johann-Dietrich Wörner, director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA) in Paris. “It's at the forefront of scientific discovery.” Eagerly anticipated missions in the coming decade include attempts to bring back lunar samples, a joint CAS–ESA project to study space weather and ground-breaking missions to probe dark matter and black holes.

But despite the momentum, many researchers in China worry about the nation's future in space science. On 2 July, a Long March-5 rocket failed during the launch of a communications satellite, raising concerns about an upcoming Moon mission that will use a similar vehicle. And broader issues cloud the horizon. “The international and domestic challenges are formidable,” says Li Chunlai, deputy director at the CAS's National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing and a senior science adviser on the country's lunar programme. China is often sidelined in international collaboration, and in recent years it has had to compete with the United States for partners because of a US law that prohibits NASA from working with China. Within China, the government has not conducted strategic planning for space science or provided long-term financial support. “The question is not how well China has been doing,” says Li. “But how long this will last.”

For more details, please refer to Science Magazine.

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(Editor: CHEN Na)

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