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Special Report

Space Exploration

The Dark Side and Beyond: A Golden Opportunity

Following its achievements in aerospace exploration over the past 60 years, China is now putting even more effort into expanding aerospace technology into a prosperous industry, via the moon

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

The docking of China’s first man-made satellite Dongfanghong-1 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, April 24, 1970

Scientists photographed at the foundation of the No.5 Research Institute of China’s Ministry of National Defense was founded

Scientists use a pump to increase pressure for the country’s first man-made liquid fuel rocket in 1960

Fetching a rock sample [from the moon] will be the final step of China’s unmanned lunar exploration program,” Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s lunar program, excitedly said to NewsChina in October. Ouyang was referring to the third and final step of the unmanned China Lunar Exploration Program, which will be the mission of the Chang’e 5 Orbiter in 2017.  

Since the foundation of the No. 5 Research Institute of China’s Ministry of National Defense, responsible for rocket and missile research, on October 8th, 1956, China has explored space for six decades. Achievements in space exploration have been exhilarating, marked by the successes of both the Lunar Exploration Program and Human Space Flight Program which is aiming to put a Chinese space station into orbit. These results are even more surprising as concrete efforts in the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) did not begin until 2004. 

From its humble beginnings when presented a sample of moon rock by the US, China developed agencies, research programs and manned space missions, and now looks to turn the progress in space into economic growth on the ground. 

Program Launch 

For Ouyang Ziyuan, a Chinese cosmochemist and keen advocate of space exploration, his first physical contact with a substance from the moon was in 1978. That year, during a trip to China, the then US President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, gave Chinese Chairman Hua Guofeng, Mao Zedong’s brief-lived successor, a special gift - a piece of rock from the moon, embedded in plexiglass. The moon rock sample had been brought back by astronauts in America’s Apollo mission.
The assignment of analyzing the make-up of the rock was given to a group of Chinese scientists including Ouyang, then a researcher at the Institute of Geochemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was one of the few Chinese researchers focusing on the study of extraterrestrial substances at the time. The rock was considered extremely precious in Ouyang’s eyes and he invited some hundred top scientists from all over China to set up a detailed research plan on the project. This is often identified in official Chinese histories as the beginning of China’s lunar exploration program. 

Under a special clean environment, when scientists cracked open the plexiglass casing, they were surprised to find that the seemingly coin-sized rock sample was in fact much, much smaller in size, weighing no more than a gram. The plexiglass had served as a magnifying glass. Ouyang carefully cut the sample into two parts, with one reserved for research, the other put on public display at the Beijing Planetarium. 

Based on the remaining half-gram sample, Ouyang and his team conducted in-depth research and published a total of 14 academic papers. Beginning in the late 1990s, Ouyang started to lobby the Chinese government to begin its own lunar exploration. As the US President Bush’s 2004 proposal to return to the moon emerged, countries and regions including Russia, Japan, India and the European Space Agency as well as China all increased their commitments to space exploration, ushering in a new global era in lunar exploration. In 2004, the Chinese government finally announced a 1.4 billion yuan (US$170 million at the time), satellite-based lunar exploration program called the Chang’e Project and approved the first stage of the planned three-stage lunar exploration program. Ouyang became the chief scientist for the program.  

Zhai Zhigang becomes the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a space walk, outside the Shenzhou-7 in September, 2008

Wang Yaping becomes the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a lesson by video in space as she does a basic physics experiment in Shenzhou-10, demonstrating the movement of objects and the surface tension of liquid in a zero-gravity environment

Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong become the first Chinese astronauts to make tea in space aboard the Tiangong-2

The lab simulation and experiment of the lunar rover conducted by the No.5 Research Institute of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation in November, 2012

The Long March-7


The three-stages for the robotic lunar mission authorized in 2004 are: Stage 1, orbiters will circle the moon and collect data; Stage 2, robotic probes will land on the moon’s surface to collect and analyze samples and transmit the data back to Earth; Stage 3, the robotic probe will return to Earth with a set of moon rocks and soil samples. According to the planned program, the Chang’e 5 Orbiter will arrive at the moon within four and half days after being launched into space.  

The sampling process is no easy task, as the plan for the orbiter is to drill two meters down into the moon’s surface while keeping the structure of the rock samples intact. The sample will be transferred to a vacuum container at the site. Once the Orbiter returns to Earth, China will become only the third country to bring back samples from the moon. “We expect to combine the lab data of the returned sample with existing lunar data, to improve the accuracy of moon surface exploration results. We hope that China can achieve more based on the samples it collected,” explained Ouyang who estimates that the results from tests on the samples will be released by 2018. 

Apart from rock sampling, Chinese scientists also plan for the rover to explore the far side – or dark side – of the moon. To date, no human has ever stood on the surface of the far side of the moon. Study of the far hemisphere of the moon is scientifically significant due to it being shielded from radio transmissions streaming out from the Earth, making it an ideal location for placing radio telescopes for use by astronomers to look deep into space. This shielding effect of the moon makes communication with any lunar explorer difficult, an issue only recently solved by leading scientists and engineers. 

In addition, the terrain of the far side is rugged, with a multitude of impact craters. Those ancient craters and rocks and their inner structures and formation are distinct from those of the areas already explored. These can help humanity learn more about the moon’s cycles as well as its formation. 

In January 2016, the Chinese government declared plans for the Chang’e 4 Orbiter to land on the far side of the moon in 2018. 

According to Liu Jizhong, Head of the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense’s Lunar Exploration Center, if successful, China would become the first ever country to reach the dark side of the Moon. “China has established a solid scientific foundation for exploring the far side of the moon, while the US and EU remain at the discussion stage,” said Liu, adding, “In other words, China now has a great opportunity [to catch up].” 

Wu Weiren, Chief Designer for the China National Space Administration’s Lunar Exploration Program, believes although China’s lunar mission is getting off to a late start, it began with a higher level of technology, a higher success rate despite fewer attempts, and higher returns with lower investment compared to other countries. China has so far conducted far fewer space missions than other space-going nations, but with higher official success rates. “The average success rate for launching exploration missions was less than 50 percent for the US and former Soviet Union combined, while we are definitely enjoying a 100 percent success rate.” 

In January this year China officially approved a project to explore Mars and plans to launch an exploratory satellite to Mars in around 2020. “The Chang’e 5 Orbiter’s sampling process is indeed a preparatory attempt for China’s future exploration of Mars or other planets,” added Ouyang. 

Yang Liwei becomes China’s first astronaut to enter space, in 2003

Yang Liwei becomes China’s first astronaut to enter space, in 2003


A critical issue for space exploration is the load capacity of the launching vehicle. Since the first Long March-1 launch vehicle lifted off in 1970, a total of 17 different types of launch vehicles have been produced. To date, China’s total for launch attempts stands at 237 with a success rate of 95 percent. 

“China’s Long March rocket series boasts diversified [load] capacities to meet the different demands of civilian as well as foreign clients,” explained Long Lehao, a rocket expert at the China Academy of Engineering, “Furthermore, the series performs far more reliable.” Rocket technology has undergone significant development in recent years, particularly with the introduction of the Long March 5/6/7 series that have phased out previous lines. 

The Long March-5 Space Launch Vehicle (CZ-5) builds the heavy-lift component that will ultimately replace the country’s current Long March rocket series. Operated alongside the Long March 5 rockets are the medium-lift Long March-7 and smaller CZ-6 rockets, together covering the entire spectrum of launch types, ranging from cargo to crew, for missions to China’s planned space station. On November 3, China successfully conducted the maiden launch of CZ-5 at the Wenchang Space Launch Centre in Hainan Province.  

“Long March 5 rockets perform equally to the European Ariane 5, the American Delta IV and Atlas V, which all belong to the top level rocket series across the globe,” Long Lehao told NewsChina. 

Development of rocket technology is aimed at allowing the development of manned space engineering attempts. October 17, a Long March 2F launcher successfully lifted the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft into orbit. On board the spacecraft were two astronauts who will stay aboard the Tiangong-2 module for 30 days, returning in mid November, to carry out a number of medical and space science experiments.  

The mission is part of a mid-stage effort to develop a permanent space station. Yang Liwei, former Chinese astronaut and now vice director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, has indicated publicly that the station is expected to be completed by 2020. According to Yang, China’s space station has reserved portals for future cooperation with other countries, and designed connection portals to be compatible with other modules. “In the development of the space station project, China is willing to be open to international cooperation and communication on project design, equipment manufacturing, space utilization, astronaut training, and arranging a joint flight program,” said Yang in a previous interview with the official Xinhua news agency. 

The next step for the Long March series is to develop a heavy-lift rocket. The planned dimensions of the rocket would be a 10 meter diameter, and 100 meter length. It will carry over five times the cargo of the largest rocket currently in use, surpassing the US’ next generation rocket, NASA’s Space Launch System. It will be able to handle manned moon exploration, a round-trip sampling mission to Mars and many other space exploration missions across the solar system. According to Tang Yihua, deputy president of China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, China’s heavy-lift rocket is expected to be ready for launch between 2027 and 2030. 

Commercial Application 

Increasing the load capacity of the launch vehicles is intended to capitalize on international commercial demand. According to statistics provided by rocket expert Long Lehao, by the end of 2015, there were a total of 42 international commercial launch assignments for the Long March series, which saw 42 satellites and 12 carriers taken into designated orbits. Long Lehao told NewsChina that the share of China-made rockets on the international market is still not significant, for reasons including unfair market competition. 

He went on to explain that due to restrictions by the US, any countries that have used American components in their launch vehicles are not allowed to use China-made rockets. According to Tang Yihua, China turned to a cooperation with the European Space Agency to get away from US monopoly. “For example, China and France jointly produced the ITAR-free satellite [International Traffic in Arms Regulations is the US regulation that classes all space hardware as weaponry] without using any US-made components, thus allowing the launch of the satellite by the Long March series.” 

Other factors such as the increasing number of private enterprises in this market have squeezed the meager market share that China had previously enjoyed. SpaceX, a US private enterprise entered the market with the unprecedented low cost of a single commercial launch at less than US$62 million. Now Europe, the US and Japan are conducting research into developing low-cost rockets, aiming to cut the price of a single rocket launch to less than half of the current price. “Taking all these elements into consideration, the Long March series is facing ever more severe market pressure,” said Tang. 

Aerospace Industry 

The first Long March 7 rocket was successfully launched on June 25, 2016 at Wenchang on China’s Hainan Island, marking the official operation of China’s fourth launchpad after Jiuquan, Xichang and Taiyuan Space Launch Centers. 

Locating the new space center in Wenchang can lower transportation cost due to its lower latitude and favorable ground-shipping conditions. Operations at the new center can also benefit China within the international commercial launch market. “It is estimated that over 100 satellites are to be launched from Wenchang between 2016 and 2025,” He Zhibin, an aerospace expert from the International Academy of Astronautics told NewsChina. 

The Hainan provincial government is more ambitious than just building a single space launch center, and aims to develop Wenchang into an aerospace city that can enjoy a booming economy based on the aerospace industry. “Prospective industries derived from space technology such as aerospace tourism, space agriculture and so on, are proving popular in some countries have not yet been developed domestically,” continued He Zhibin, who visited the Kennedy Space Center and Huntsville Space and Rocket Center in the US and noticed the international trend of expanding the space industry. “The Wenchang center is sure to propel local economic and social development.” 

The outcomes of the aerospace opportunity are already being felt in Wenchang. According to Wang Xiaoqiao, Mayor of Wenchang, on the day of the Long March 7 launch alone, the city drew 150,000 tourists. He added, confidently, in September at a public event: “The new launch center will attract more tourists from across the world in the coming years.”