05/11/2023, 12.01
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Beijing looks beyond the solar system to 'colonise' habitable planets

by Dario Salvi

The aim is to complete the programme and make it operational by 2030 thanks to high-resolution images. An 'ambitious and significant' plan to study distant celestial bodies in space. The economic and military challenge with the United States. Zhurong's Mars mission and the launch of the cargo spacecraft Tianzhou 6.

Milan (AsiaNews) - If China's first objective in the territorial - and terrestrial - sphere in the immediate future is to re-annex the "rebel" island of Taiwan, its long-term plans go well beyond the borders of the solar system, in search of "habitable planets" that can be colonised. At least, that is Beijing's ambitious space plan, which, as Chinese experts in the field explain, should be completed and operational by the end of 2030 using high-resolution images and spectroscopic investigations. 

Zhang Xuhui, executive vice-president of the China Academy of Aerospace Science and Technology Innovation, emphasises that the plan called 'Miyin', which is still under development, aims to hunt for new habitable planets in addition to the earth. The expert, quoted by the communist party English-language daily Global Times during a conference in Hefei, in the east of the country, said that the first steps of this new search should begin in 2030, once the assembly process of the basic telescope has been completed.

In search of life

The researchers aim to make high-resolution images and spectroscopic observations of various types of objects in order to map the aqueous component in the solar system. 'The Miyin programme,' Zhang added, 'is ambitious and significant, but it is still in the technological development phase. In the future, we will progress its maturity through a series of flight tests, while making further scientific breakthroughs along the way'.

The progression of the Chinese space programme envisages several stages: in 2025, the Chinese space station will be the base for experiments in the field of optical interference, better known as interferometry, a technique used to study distant celestial objects in space; a year later, scientists plan to launch an experimental satellite with technology to realise for the first time the detection of distributed optical interference in space, as well as to verify key points of the Miyin programme; and finally, by 2030, the completion of the optical interference imaging telescope. The last step, Zhang concluded, is the search for 'habitable' planets.

The goal is to map the structure and physical properties of solar system objects, as well as the distribution of molecular components of the solar system, particularly water, and reveal their origin, dynamics, and evolution of chemical composition.

Beijing's space race also includes investigations into the genesis of life on earth and its components, in a mix of outward progress and inward investigation down to its origins. The plan reinforces, once again, Chinese ambitions with its billion-dollar investments that have already decreed some successes such as the landing of a probe on the far dark side of the Moon in January 2019, a world first to date. 

Moreover, China's Tiangong space station will most likely become the only operational and functioning one in orbit by the time NASA takes the International Space Station out of orbit of our planet by 2031. Washington has always denied China access to the ISS because of military secrets related to the space programme.

The space race

Beijing started its first space programmes in the 1950s, initially collaborating with the then Soviet Union and continuing with an autonomous programme after the crisis with Moscow in 1960. Early successes include the launch of the artificial satellite 10 years later in 1970, which was followed by a phase of slow progress until the new acceleration - thanks to huge investments and cutting-edge technologies - in the 1990s with the sending of astronauts beyond the atmosphere and the more recent robotic vehicles to the Moon and Mars.

Beijing's progress is followed with concern by the United States, which sees its primacy in space and economic-military threat in jeopardy. China is the third nation after the Soviet Union and the United States to have carried out human missions beyond the Earth's atmosphere with the exclusive use of domestically produced technology.

Already today, the control of space appears to be as vital as that of economic resources on earth, particularly the potential of artificial satellites. And if, in the future, it becomes possible and economically viable to exploit the resources of our satellite or other celestial bodies, the confrontation between the parties is destined to become even more bitter, not least because the current treaties on aerospace law do not lay down precise rules for the various political, diplomatic and strategic disputes that may arise.

Zhurong to Tianzhou 6

In May 2021, a Chinese robotic vehicle called Zhurong successfully landed on Mars, effectively making China one of the leading nations in missions beyond the atmosphere. The 240 kg vehicle with six scientific instruments including a high-resolution topographic camera studied the soil and atmosphere of the red planet, exploring its surface for 358 days and travelling almost 2,000 metres.

Having exceeded its planned mission period of three months, the fully robotic rover has since May last year entered a phase of hibernation, most likely due to a build-up of sand and dust, causing it to lose track. Chinese experts continue to monitor developments, while pursuing activity on many other fronts considering that it now has four orbital launch ports, rockets and cutting-edge technology to confirm its ambitions. 

One of the stated goals is to send astronauts to the Moon and install a permanent base on the satellite, and then go straight to Mars as well as planning the construction of a power station capable of storing solar energy in space and transferring it to Earth. This is tomorrow, while today is represented by the launch of the Tianzhou 6 cargo spacecraft, which is due to refuel the Tiangon space station, the first mission of this nature since the station's completion in November.

The carrier, which is unmanned and loaded with 7.4 tonnes of fuel, food, supplies and scientific research equipment, departed yesterday from the launch station in Wenchang, Hainan Island, in the south of the country, according to data provided by the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).

"The rocket and the vehicle are in excellent condition. Ready to fly,' said Zhong Wenan, chief engineer at the Xichang centre, which oversees the Wenchang site. The craft then docked regularly at the orbiting station, completing all stages eight hours after launch. "In the future," adds chief designer Wang Ran, an operative at the China Academy of Space Technology, "we plan to send a huge refrigerator so that the astronauts can eat fresh fruit and frozen food."

The space race continues.


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