For scientists reaching for the stars, China offers leg-up – with litmus test
As government budgets for space exploration tighten in the US and Europe, researchers are increasingly looking to Beijing’s national programme. But the bar for taking part is rising
For three days in Shanghai late last month, leading Chinese space scientists met their European counterparts to discuss how to work together on projects that push the limits of technology.
One of the topics discussed was China’s push to build the world’s largest space telescope. With a collection area stretching 10 to 30 metres across, the Large X-ray Sieve Telescope would dwarf the Hubble, with its mirror measuring 2.4 metres in diameter, and far surpass its successor, the James Webb telescope, which will span 6.5 metres when finished.
The Large X-ray Sieve Telescope gets its name from the materials it uses – its plastic membrane is punctured with millions of pinholes. When photons pass through the openings, they are diffracted and concentrated into a focal point that creates images of distant galaxies to unprecedented detail.
The talks left Dr Du Yuanjie, a senior engineering researcher with the China Academy of Space Technology, with a sense of hope and disappointment.
Du discussed the project with a group of British and European space scientists who were interested in joining the construction.
“We had some lively discussions and exchanged some ideas, but for now, the hardware and technology proposed by the Europeans cannot meet our mission’s requirements,” Du told the South China Morning Post. “To collaborate with China, they must bring to the table something that will make a tangible contribution to the mission. Otherwise, we’d rather work alone.”
The talks show the shifting dynamics in global cooperation over space exploration, with collaboration dependent on what the foreign scientists can bring to the table, Chinese researchers say.
China’s budget for space exploration remains only a tenth of Nasa’s, but the government is expected to allocate much more money as the number of ambitious missions increases, including the space station, Mars exploration and landing humans on the moon. Most missions are open for international collaboration.
China’s increasingly sophisticated space technology gives Western scientists a platform to launch their own experiments and test new technologies that otherwise might have been delayed for years or even decades if routed through Nasa or the European Space Agency, where many missions are put on hold to slower growing budgets. But getting access to a Chinese space project is not as easy as they expected.
Dr Hugh Mortimer, a senior research scientist at Britain’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which employs 1,200 staff and is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said Western scientists would not get a ticket to ride China’s space programme without a clear understanding of what China wanted.
“The key is to identify an area of common interest,” said Mortimer, who attended the same space workshop in Shanghai sponsored by the Chinese and British governments.
One of China’s upcoming projects includes installing an atom interferometer in its space station. The device uses atoms hovering in near-zero gravity to detect tiny variations in the earth’s gravitational pull. It will be the most sensitive gravitational force detector yet built, according to Mortimer, and give
scientists a powerful tool to study global-scale issues such as the glacial melting in Tibet, earthquakes and rises in sea levels. In 10 to 15 years after installation, the technology could also be used to detect any gravitational signals from a nuclear submarine cruising quietly several metres under the surface of the ocean.
Mortimer and his colleagues at the laboratory have worked closely with Chinese scientists for eight years, and were hoping to take part in the Chinese atomic interferometer project. The feedback they received from their Chinese partners was strongly positive as the technology fell into an area of common interest for the British and Chinese governments, he said.
Researchers have already built a prototype of the device, but it is as big as a room. Shrinking the size of the instrument to meet the demands of a space mission poses an enormous challenge to scientists.
Mortimer said he was optimistic China would allow foreign scientists to take part in the project given the technology was still in its infancy and any military application was decades away.
But according to a senior space scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who requested anonymity, Chinese scientists are keeping the bar for collaboration high because they were under intense pressure to meet government-imposed deadlines.
Many Chinese researchers were sacrificing personal time, family relationships or even their health to get the job done in time.
But the near-fanatical drive has led to numerous breakthroughs, such as the world’s first quantum satellite and cold atomic clock in space. Western countries had started similar projects but Chinese space scientists and engineers got there first.
“Most Western scientists may find it difficult to keep up with the pace of development in China,” the Chinese space scientist said.
But Anu Ojha, director of the British National Space Academy, said he expected to see a major breakthrough in space collaboration between China and the West within the next five years.
Some European astronauts were learning Putonghua to prepare for missions involving the Chinese space station, while Chinese astronauts had been invited to Europe to train for possible trips to the International Space Station, Ojha said. There were also signs of an easing in ties between China and the United States after a recent visit to Beijing by Nasa chief Charles Bolden.
Ojha said Western space scientists were “shocked” by the progress in the Chinese space programme. Chinese researchers had come up with solutions to some engineering problems that were “completely different” from those in the West and that worked equally well or even better.
Among European countries, Britain had a particularly strong interest in strengthening collaboration with China over space, in part due to the uncertainty surrounding its own space projects after the nation’s decision to leave the European Union, according to Ojha.
Du said the Large X-ray Sieve Telescope project still needed final approval from the central government, and the door for international collaboration remained open.
But he said Western countries should not approach China for collaboration with second- or third-rate technology, because it would be regarded as humiliation.