Space missions have become a focus for boosting national prestige and a showcase for China’s technological capabilities, according to David Baker, editor of the annual reference book “Jane's Space Directory” in Britain.
“China has realized that in order to be a major player on the world stage it has to demonstrate that it has a sound and strong technical base," Baker told RFE/RL. "And the desire to explore the moon is a part of China's movement forward to demonstrate to nations that they are capable of matching the achievements of those nations that have always been considered to be the dominant countries.”
In 2003, China propelled its first astronaut into space for a 21-hour flight around the Earth aboard a spacecraft based on the Russian Soyuz capsule. The country thus became the third country to have placed a person in orbit decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
China's Research Institute of Space Technology says the country plans to launch its next manned space mission in early October with two astronauts circling the Earth for several days.
Last year, China launched an unmanned moon-exploration project, which includes putting a satellite in orbit around the moon before 2007, landing before 2010, and collecting lunar soil samples before 2020.
Craig Covault, senior editor for the U.S. magazine "Aviation Week And Space Technology," told RFE/RL that the moon project is one of the many fronts where China's space technology program is making rapid progress. “It is developing a whole new range of large, modern rockets -- boosters. It is developing manned spacecraft for use in Earth orbit to a small Chinese space laboratory that will be operational in the next 10 years or so," he said. "And between now and then, [China is planning] individual flights of the Shenzhou spacecraft of a week or so in length. It is also looking at developing a wide range of satellites for Earth orbit.”
On 2 August, the official Xinhua news agency reported that China successfully launched its 21st return scientific satellite, which will be used to carry out scientific research, land surveying and mapping, and experiments in outer space.
Covault notes that communication and navigation are two key areas of development that China is undertaking in space. “It is developing its own navigation capability, primarily to give Chinese military air, sea, and land forces a great autonomy and precision in navigation," he told RFE/RL. "In the area of communications, China is developing its own autonomous communications-satellite capability so it does not have to rely on U.S. and European-built systems.”
However, Covault added that China's space technology still lags behind the United States, Europe, and Japan. For instance, he says Chinese manned spacecraft is comparable to the Soyuz spacecraft that started to fly 30 years ago. U.S. and European communications satellites can function in orbit for more than 10 years, while Chinese ones remain operational for only five or six years.
Baker told RFE/RL that China can build the infrastructure for a “new and vibrant” capability across all areas of space technology if it cooperates with other nations. “The biggest capability which the Chinese have had so far is with their launch vehicles," he added. "They have developed rocketry independent of other countries. But that's merely the transportation system. In order to do serious and big things in space they need to develop other areas, and in those areas they really are quite far behind.”
China and Brazil have already been jointly researching and developing Earth resource satellites. China is also a partner of the European Union in the development of Galileo, a European version of the GPS navigation system now in place in the United States.
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