Tag Archives: Mars

China’s Meteoric Rise in the Space Race

21 Nov 6a00d8341bf7f753ef01b7c87bb279970b-800wi

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) looks set to become a science power-house with projects and ambitions in space overshadowing any other country on the globe.

China’s roots in space exploration can be traced back to the 1950’s when rocket propelled ballistic missile programs spearheaded national security measures. After two decades of military tensions in the region, the country’s first satellite was launched into orbit in 1970. However, it was not until 1993, when the China National Space Administration (CNSA) was formed that we got an idea of their intentions in racing to the stars.

After a series of unmanned missions from 1999 onwards, China soon became the third country to send humans in to space successfully when the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft launched astronaut Yang Liwei in October of 2003. Since then the space community has seen an exponential rise in the amount of missions and other research programs headed by the communist state.

Reaching for the Skies

Back in September we saw news regarding the Space Administration entering a three year test phase of the World’s largest Radio Telescope in the south-western Guizhou Province.

Measuring in at 500m across, the telescope dwarfs the current largest Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico by nearly 200m.

With the ability to detect signals in the furthest reaches of the cosmos as well as focus on extremely distant, dense stars, this instrument is likely to make China one of the globe’s science superpowers.

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Photo courtesy of Chinese Academy of Sciences

The Red’s Planet?

Following a number of scientific successes in the early part of this decade, the Chinese are continuing their aspirations in space exploration by planning un-crewed missions to both the Moon and Mars. In 2013 the Jade Rabbit lunar probe was launched as part of the lunar exploration program, which also aims to have the Chang’e-4 probe land on the far side of the moon by 2018.

The planet Mars seems to have captured the imagination of China as much as any other country. Beijing have a series of projects and launches lined up to prepare them for their first on-surface rover by 2020, and ambitions to send humans between 2040 – 2060.

China was also a leading member in the Mars 500 program, simulating the psychological effects of isolation for the duration of a mission to Mars, which is around 500 days.

Project 921

After decades of cooperation with the then Soviet Union and continued support from Russia, the Chinese developed modified versions of their Shenzhou spacecraft with the intention of constructing a permanently manned Space Station by 2022 under the title of Project 921.

In 2011 the PRC began their continual testing program by launching the first in a series of spacecraft modules under the name Tiangong, meaning “Heavenly Palace”. Manned crafts Shenzhou 8,9 and 10 were launched in the early twenty-tens, all docking with the first module Tiangong 1, creating history for China’s space program.

The second phase of this project was only recently entered when the Tiangong 2 precursor facility was launched to rendezvous with the first module and, after a month on board Tiangong 1 conducting scientific and medical tests, two CNSA Astronauts returned to Earth safely.

Shortly after astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee commented:

“our manned space program has achieved major new progress and is the latest achievement in building a country of innovation and a world power of science and technology… It is the newest achievement of Chinese people in climbing the peak of the world.”

NASA’s Budget Cuts Felt on Mars

21 Feb Obama Kennedy Space Center Visit

The largest Space Agency in the world, NASA, is due to have its spending budget cut significantly as of next year in an attempt to drive down the national debt the United States currently possesses. President Barack Obama revealed plans to slice the government’s allowance to the aeronautics institute when previously stating it would be increased to fund current and future missions.

Projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope will suffer heavily by this action, that is sure to dent the countries hopes of remaining in pole position in the on-going space race. The cut may not seem a lot, penciled currently at $17.7 billion from previously $17.8 billion, but with America’s money going elsewhere, this is a huge blow for mans progression into space.

NASA’s planetary division will see a cut of $300 Million which is sure to stunt the growth of some of the most innovative space programs to date. Reports convey that the percentage cut could have been substantially more at 15% rather than the 5% that was implemented. Still, brand new missions are sure to be pushed back or scraped by the agency altogether in an attempt to spread spending.

Missions to Mars are likely to be worst hit. Scientists in charge of current Martian missions will have to decide whether to fund new projects to the planet or to keep the current missions including the explorer rovers and orbiting satellites. The MAVEN mission, a satellite designed to detect previous evidence of water on the red planet, will still go ahead next year but this has also had serious reductions.

Other areas that have seen dramatic cuts is Education which suffered a drop of 38.5%,  many planetary scientists think this is wrong. Phil Plait; Astronomer and MC at Bad Astronomy says:

“That money funds a vast amount of educational outreach – and I should know. That funding does a huge amount of good for schoolkids, and cutting it is a mistake”.

Rather than help the progression of mankind’s exploration of the Universe the US government proved it would prefer to aid the crusade outside its own borders by subsequently releasing that the Defence budget for 2013 would reach $851 billion. This figure out weighs the cost of healthcare and social security within America as well as NASA’s sliced budget.

Significant budget cuts like this are sure to be felt worldwide and beyond as human kind’s stance of the edge of discovery is pushed back. Missions to Mars are key to our appreciation of life and the understanding of various environments out in deep space. Scientist’s predictions of having a man on Mars in 30 years seems that much further away. Unless private space flight is mainstreamed or Russia takes the lead in the space race NASA will begin to fall behind where before it was so integral to our understanding of creation.

MSL: Will ‘Curiosity’ get the better of NASA?

20 Nov Artist depiction of 'Curiosity, MSL latest rover

On November 26th the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will finally be prepared to launch their third mobile laboratory, rover ‘Curiosity’, to the planet Mars. This mission is fraught with new challenges and especially risk as the agency will have to pioneer new exercises in order to assure the capsule has a soft landing. Can NASA overcome adversity and prove to this world that the work these rovers do will benefit our curiosity of the red planet?

NASA will have to perfect a brand new operations maneuver when this one-ton vehicle falls to the rocky surface at colossal speed. A rocket assisted landing will be attempted for the first time in outer space surroundings, NASA will have no second chances. The leading scientists of this mission do not have the luxury of the previous MER mission where the rovers were shielded by an airbag, leaving them to bounce along the unstable ground.

This pioneering mission has a lot riding on it as it is to date NASA most expensive mission into outer space, costing the administration $2.3 Billion. The capsule encasing the rover will be enroute to the red planet for over 8 months, increasing the chances of malfunction or error. The expensive payload carries a lot of new and improved equipment aboard making this one of NASA’s most risky of missions to date.

Humans have always been fascinated with their red neighbor and the idea of ‘Martian’ life forms walking or indeed invading the Earth. This MSL mission is taking that idea a step further as it goes in search of evidence to suggest that life once roamed this world.

MSL stands for Mars Science Laboratory and this will be the name given to the overall mission. The launch of the Atlas V rocket, the subsequent separation of the Curiosity rover and rocket, the 8 month journey, the decent to the planet, the landing onto Mars and of course the search for previous indications of life on the surface.

This mission has never been about finding microbial life. It is designed to asses habitability, past and present, not to detect life”. Guy Webster, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

NASA already has two other such machines that have been skimming the Martian surface since 2003. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were part of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (MER) sent to the planet to study its geology and surface. This mission has had umpteen amounts of success and both machines are still strong today. They even assisted Mars experts to plot the landing site for Curiosity.

The gale crater is an area on Mars scientists believe is perfect to land their car-sized craft and it is an area of great interest as well. Guy Webster says,

Selection of Gale crater was indeed based on new discoveries after start of development of MSL, particularly the discoveries of clay materials on Mars since 2005”.

With the landing zone being 12.4 miles by 15.5 miles across, you might think it is quite some distance, but imagine landing a remote controlled airplane travelling at supersonic speed from a platform over 33 million miles away and you get an idea of the scale of this operation.

The launch window for the Atlas V rocket starts at 15:30 (GMT) on Friday 25th November and will run until December 18th, if all goes to plan. The Rover is expected to land on the Martian surface in August 2012.