China is unusually secretive about its space program
Nin months after being secretly launched into orbit, an unmanned Chinese spacecraft touched down at a spaceport in the Gobi desert on May 8. Little is known about the mission. A brief state media report called it a “significant disappointment”.
The Chinese spacecraft may be similar to the one developed by the US air force, called the X-37B, which has spent more than 900 days in space in one piece. Both were launched by rockets, but can land like a conventional aircraft. Spacecraft reuse saves money. Ships like this can help carry out scientific experiments or launch satellites. While in orbit, the Chinese spaceship scattered a small object.
The mystery surrounding the mission is somewhat understandable. Many governments are fond of their space activities – especially ones with potential military purposes. America has restricted the spread of information around the X-37B. But China is more secretive than most when it comes to space.
Take the country’s Tiangong space station, which apparently has a scientific purpose. Since its completion in October, China has been tight-lipped about the astronauts’ activities there. When two of them went for spacewalk on March 30, it was announced later. No details were given. In contrast, the International Space Station pre-records all spacewalks, and then streams them live.
With the reputation at stake, officials may be inclined to cover up failures. In 2021 China landed a rover named Zhurong on Mars. Last May it went into hibernation for the Martian winter, when there is less sunlight to power it. Zhurong should have woken up in December. It wasn’t until April that Chinese scientists explained that an accumulation of dust had stopped the sun’s rays from restarting the rover.
Sometimes China’s mystery is more frightening. The modules that make up the Tiangong were brought into orbit by a series of rockets. Pieces of these rockets then fell back to Earth. While much of the debris burned up on re-entry, some hit the Earth’s surface. No one was injured. But the American space agency, NASAcomplained that China did not share data about the falling material to help other countries assess the risks.
Part of the problem is that the People’s Liberation Army runs China’s spaceports and their crewed space missions. It is therefore difficult to distinguish between China’s civilian space activities and military ones. (Space technologies themselves are often dual-use.) China’s competitors tend to assume the worst. In January the head of the NASABill Nelson, warns that China may start claiming lunar territory “under the guise of scientific research”.
Around the same time, the European Space Agency said it would not be sending astronauts to the Tiangong, as previously planned. That may be due to back pressure on Earth. Has the idea of separation extended to space, too?■
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