China science

China’s space ambitions open up a world of wonder and opportunity

Sun Kwok says the progress in Beijing’s space exploration programme is nothing short of spectacular, and Hong Kong, with its base of highly trained researchers and strong international connections, has a great deal to offer

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 5:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 9:19am

On a hot August day in 2012, about 2,500 delegates of the International Astronomical Union from around the world gathered in a conference hall in Beijing, eagerly waiting to hear an address by Xi Jinping (習近平), then the vice-president of China. Most of us did not know what to expect; some probably thought that it would be a dull, slogan-laden speech typical of leaders of communist countries. But after he was introduced by the union’s president, Robert Williams, Xi delivered an eloquent speech about the future of astronomical science in China. He laid out ambitious plans for space exploration, sending probes to the moon and Mars, building major ground-based observatories in China, and establishing permanent scientific stations in Antarctica. Although the delegates were used to hearing strong messages for science from presidents, prime ministers, and even kings and queens at IAU general assemblies in other countries, they were surprised by Xi’s detailed knowledge and strong commitments. He was clearly not just reading from a prepared text; his desire for progress was genuine and his enthusiasm real.

After the speech, delegates asked me: “Is this person your incoming leader?” and said “China will have a great future!” European and American scientists, who are used to continued cuts in their research budgets, were surprised to find that investments in science research are increasing exponentially in China.

Space technology is now part of our everyday lives: communication, navigation (GPS), and surveying (Google Earth) are just a few examples. Satellite-based remote sensing is crucial for studies of the Earth’s land, oceans and atmosphere. In-situ measurements from spacecraft probe the near-Earth environments and provide essential warnings of turbulent space weather. Within our solar system, robotic spacecraft explore the moon, the planets and their satellites, asteroids and comets. Looking outward, space-based telescopes survey the larger universe: stars, the Milky Way, and galaxies far away. For these reasons, every developed and developing country is strongly committed to advancing space science and technology.

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Although China started late, it has been a very fast learner. After Xi’s speech, China launched Chang’e 嫦娥3 lunar missions in 2013 and landed a rover on the moon on December 13 the same year. Chang’e 5 will launch this year to collect lunar samples and return them to Earth. A Mars orbiter, lander and rover are expected to fly to Mars around 2020.

On the scientific side, China launched the Dark Matter Particle Explorer in December 2015. The spacecraft’s mission is to study the origin of cosmic rays by observing high-energy electrons; Dr Meng Su, an astronomer at the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research, is a member of the team. The hard X-ray modulation telescope will survey the X-ray background of the galaxy and is expected to be launched by the Long March 2D rocket this year.

Although China started late, it has been a very fast learner

China is committed to a long-term presence in space through the Tiangong programme. Tiangong 1 and 2 were launched in 2011 and 2016 respectively; Tiangong 3, a 60-tonne space station scheduled for launch around 2022, will have large laboratory modules to carry out long-term experiments. It is even envisioned to carry a two-metre telescope for astronomical observations.

To improve our understanding of global warming, China launched the TanSat satellite in December last year to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide from space. The Beidou navigation system is operating a constellation of satellites and will eventually expand to 35 satellites covering the entire world. The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale research project was launched in August last year to test quantum encryption technology in space.

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On the ground, China is moving equally rapidly. The 500-metre aperture spherical telescope, completed last year, can detect extremely faint cosmic radio signals. A 12½-metre optical telescope is being planned for construction in Tibet ( 西藏 ). China is collaborating with international partners to build a very large ground-based radio telescope array called the square kilometre array in Australia and South Africa, estimated to cost more than US$2 billion. China is also part of the Thirty Metre Telescope project, with an estimated cost exceeding US$1.4 billion.

As a member of China’s Antarctic astronomy team, I am particularly excited about China’s construction of the Antarctic survey telescopes at Dome A. Dome A is situated at the highest point (4,100 metres) of the Antarctic plateau and offers near-space conditions for astronomical observations with minimal interference from the Earth’s atmosphere.

These facilities open up great opportunities for Chinese astronomers to explore the universe with the most sophisticated instruments, enabling them to compete to perform at the highest international levels. Not long ago, only three universities in China (Nanjing, Beijing Normal and Peking) offered astronomy programmes. Now, dozens of universities have degree programmes in astronomy or space science. The supply of trained researchers cannot keep up with the rapid expansion of astronomical and space developments. Scientists are needed not only to design, build and operate the hardware, but also to analyse the large amount of data that these advanced instruments will collect. Chinese universities and research institutes are thus aggressively recruiting to meet their staff needs.

We are indeed fortunate to live in a time of the rapid science expansion of China

I recently gave a lecture at the National Space Science Centre in Beijing, where some of the scientific work on space missions is taking place. The scale of activities is impressive, even to this scientist who is familiar with Nasa and European Space Agency operations. The centre in Beijing occupies two large buildings and employs more than 1,000 scientists and engineers. They have already outgrown the current quarters and will move to an even larger complex on the outskirts of Beijing.

Although some people see these programmes as mere symbols of national prestige, they are actually important drivers for advanced technology. Many technologies first developed for astronomical purposes were later adapted for commercial use. These research investments are the first steps allowing China to move away from assembly industries to design and production of hi-tech products.

We are indeed fortunate to live in a time of the rapid science expansion of China. Hong Kong provides a base of highly trained researchers and strong international connections. It is up to us to grasp these opportunities.

Professor Sun Kwok is chair professor of space science and director of Laboratory for Space Research at the University of Hong Kong. He currently serves as president of the International Astronomical Union’s commission on astrobiology