China has successfully launched her first Tiangong-1 ( 天宫一号, “Heavenly Palace 1”) space lab module that would eventually dock with a series of other ones to form a space station. China Daily reports:
Zhang Shancong, deputy chief designer of the Tiangong-1, told Xinhua that the module carries special cameras which will take hyperspectral images of China’s vast farmlands to detect heavy metal pollution and pesticide residue as well as plant disease.
Moreover, scientists on the ground will also conduct experiments on photonic crystal, a new material expected to revolutionize information technology, in the low-gravity environment inside the Tiangong-1 as these experiements would be extremely difficult to conduct on Earth’s surface.
The Shenzhou-8 will be used to conduct docking experiments with the module in one month’s time. If successful, China will be the third nation behind U.S. and Russia to have achieved this milestone.
Unlike the International Space Station, Tiangong-1 will be a station shouldered by China alone. (By the way, China’s repeated applications to join the ISS have been blocked by the U.S.. Chinese media to report on the last shuttle launch was blocked too by the U.S.. China also withdrew from the European GPS program, because the EU failed to match funding and blocked China from decision making.) It appears China is destined to push forward on her own with collaboration with Russia.
By 2020, the station will be housing a semi-permanent crew. Russia is expected to pull her module out of the ISS by 2020 and make a space station of her own for deep space exploration. China and Russia have announced joint efforts in this area. China’s docking system is compatible with Russia’s. (Wikipedia.org)
In 2013, China and Russia will send a joint robot probe to Mars.
NPR carrying an AP article writes:
Still, Beijing is expected to press ahead whatever the difficulties as long as it continues to result in international prestige, domestic credibility, technological advancement, and economic spin-offs, Johnson-Freese and Vick said.
There is no question that the NASA program brought tremendous prestige, domestic credibility, technological advancements, and economic spin-offs to the United States. China’s achievement in this area is expected to do the same. The U.S. should continue to invest in NASA and not cut her funding to it.
BBC has some ridiculous spins, with the headline, “Tiangong-1 launch betrays China’s earthly ambitions.” Is the ISS betraying the U.S., EU, Japan, Russia, and etc ‘earthly ambitions?’ Ludicrous.
There are certain to be bumps along the way. China had a failed launch recently using a similar rocket. The big advantage China has today compared to the U.S. and the USSR few decades ago is that China has the advantage of modern day computers and manufacturing. China has also the experience of the U.S. and Russia to draw upon. This has enabled China to quickly narrow the gap.
NASA has done a tremendous job in creating interest around the globe for things beyond earth. They have shared vast amounts of data for scientists around the world. In that tradition, China is doing the same. For example, she made available Chang’e’s data collected from the moon. Sure, China’s discovery in space will benefit the Chinese foremost, but in the same way like NASA, China’s discoveries can benefit humanity.
All of us should applaud China’s effort and not yap away like a poor sport.
[Update Sept 29, 2011]
Beijing TV segment with animation and description on how Tiangong-1 achieves orbit:
关注 ‘天宫一号’：’天宫一号’ 今天凌晨成功进行第一次变轨