China launched its biggest rocket ever into space Thursday, sending an experimental satellite designed to test prototype electric-propulsion technology.
China’s two-stage rocket can carry 25 tons into low-Earth orbit, making it the largest of rocket ever launched by the country. The 187 foot tall Long March rocket is powered by 10 liquid-fueled engines, and is capable of generating about 2.4 million pounds of thrust. NASA’s next generation Space Launch System will be 212 feet tall and capable of generating 3.6 million pounds of thrust.
Both countries’ rockets are smaller and less powerful than proposed private sector designs from American companies like Boeing, SpaceX and Blue Origin.
China’s new space station, dubbed Tiangong-2, is currently hosting three crew members for between 20 to 30 days. China plans to attach two more experiment modules to the station and begin full operations in 2022, and intends to keep it in orbit for over a decade.
China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, was launched in 2011 and weighed 8.5 metric tons. The first station is falling out of orbit in an uncontrolled manner and will likely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere late next year.
China considers both of its space stations to be stepping stones to a solar powered Mars rover in 2020. Since launching its first manned space mission in 2003, China has staged a spacewalk, landed a rover on the moon, increased its cooperation in space with Europe, and launched a second demo space station.
Beijing is pouring billions into ambitious scientific projects and also possesses the advantage of a fully military-backed space program.
“After years of investment and strategy, China is well on its way to becoming a space superpower—and maybe even a dominant one,” Popular Science reported in September. “Now, satellites guide Chinese aircraft, missiles, and drones, while watching over crop yields and foreign military bases. The growing number of missions involving Chinese rockets and taikonauts [astronauts] are a source of immense national pride.”
China is heavily involved in militarizing space as well. The communist country successfully targeted and destroyed one of its own satellites in orbit in 2007, and is likely testing a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.
The U.S. Department of Defense “urgently needs” new policies to defend U.S. satellites from Chinese anti-satellite technology. The country appears to be developing space weapons capable of knocking out U.S. satellites in any future conflict, giving them a potentially catastrophic edge in war, a report published in August by the U.S. National Academies found.
Chinese plans in space face serious problems, in spite of American concerns. The Chinese lunar rover had numerous mechanical problems and was ultimately abandoned. China’s first attempt to send a satellite into Mars orbit in 2011 failed when the rocket carrying it blew up before even reaching Earth’s orbit.
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