Future tech

As Nasa's New Horizons reaches Pluto, Chinese space scientists complain of lack of funding and support

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 5:51pm

As Nasa prepares for an historic flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons space probe, mainland Chinese scientists are still struggling to get funding from Beijing for similar projects to tap into the unknown frontiers of space.

Some projects have been proposed for years and have attracted a considerable degree of international attention due to their smart design and ambitious goals, but so far only a handful have received a definite nod from the pragmatic space authorities.

The oldest infant project in cradle is HXMT, short for the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope.

In early 1990s Chinese scientists developed a small ground base telescope that could pick up extremely faint cosmic rays from space, and they proposed the smart design to the government to build an ambitious space telescope that could rival the Hubble Space Telescope in terms of sensitivity and definition.

The HXMT probe was expected to be launched in 2010 but the project suffered severe delay mainly due to the lacking of government funding, according to mainland Chinese media reports. The research of the project was still going on but there was no time table for the launch date.

WATCH: Nasa's livefeed of the New Horizons mission, which will fly past Pluto at 19:45 HKT

“Scientific projects often hit a cold stone wall in the reviewing process at the space authorities. The science is to explore the unknown, and to explore the unknown we want to use the newest technology and equipment. But to space authorities, safety and reliability is the priority. They would not allow design and hardware to be used extensively, if at all, in a space mission,” said a scientist involved in the making of China’s space project plans, who declined to be named due to the issue’s sensitivity.

But in recent years the Chinese government seemed to have realised its extreme caution and pragmatic approach would not help in the new space race with the United States and other nations.

Last year Chinese space authorities reached an agreement with the European Space Agency to join hands in developing projects that would rival those of Nasa.

Some scientific probes have entered the design phrase, and they included the DAMPE project, or Dark Matter Particle Explorer and SJ-10, a retrievable satellite which will conduct 19 life science and physical experiments in space.

Chinese scientists have proposed other space science projects and hope they will soon receive funding. They include a large solar telescope, a black-hole exploration probe and a project to detect planets suitable for life outside the solar system.

None of these projects yet has a definite launch date. Insiders said that those in charge of China's space programme still favour impressive, attention-grabbing projects such as the construction of a new space station or further moon landings, both of which have been approved by Beijing.

The only purely scientific project receiving exceptional government support was an experimental quantum communication satellite to be launched next year.

The satellite would establish the world’s first quantum link between Earth and space to achieve highly secure communication using quantum keychains.