Although Chinese media, and officials, are still referring to a planned launch between 'June and August', with all hardware now at Jiuquan, it seems that the Chinese are working towards a launch in the earlier part of that timeframe. Previous Shenzhou flights, whether manned or unmanned, have launched only 35-40 days after the arrival of the rocket at Jiuquan
In addition, the respected UK based space and satellite tracking service, www.zarya.info, has undertaken ongoing analysis of the orbital track of Tiangong 1 since it was launched last year.
Zarya is now able to anticipate an eight day launch window, for Shenzhou 9, which would accommodate a two day orbital chase to rendezvous and dock with Tiangong 1, and then return to earth after 13 days, in the established recovery zone. This launch window opens in 17th June, which is 39 days after the Long March was delivered to the launch centre. Chinese officials have previously said that Shenzhou 9's flight will include a 10 day stay at Tiangong 1.
The Tiangong-1, which was launched on Sept. 29, 2011, was instrumental in China's first space docking mission, in which the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft docked with the Tiangong-1 in early November 2011. If all goes well with Shenzhou 9, another crew will visit the Tiangong 1 outpost in 2013 onboard Shenzhou 10.
I generally avoid military space subjects, but this is an interesting piece from DefenseTech on the reported Chinese version of the U.S. X-37B spaceplane. It appears that rumors of the existence of the craft may be true. Known as Shenlong, it is shorter and smaller than the X-37B.
And like the X-37B, the only people who really know what it does or is capable of doing aren't talking.
That’s right, the rumors appear to be true. Beijing is joining the United States as the only nations with reusable spaceplane designs that are actually conducting test flights. Beijing reportedly sent its Divine Dragon — or Shenlong — space plane aloft for a successful atmospheric test flight in January, 2011.
The U.S. uses its two X-37B spaceplanes for incredibly long missions doing super classified work in place, one can only guess that China’s Divine Dragon will be used for similar purposes.
Now, what’s the real news in this year and a half old story? Well, according to DT’s go-to China expert Andrew Erickson, its the speed at which China is closing the gap between the fielding of advanced technology compared to the U.S. Remember when then-defense secretary Robert Gates last year dismissed China’s new J-20 stealth fighter by saying that the PLA is about 20 years behind the Pentagon in terms of technology? The launch of the Divine Dragon less than a after the X-37B made its first space flight may be an indicator that China is closing that double decade technology gap, according to Erickson. (Notice how the Divine Dragon shown above looks remarkably similar to the X-37B? I would bet that plenty of useful info on the American program ended up in China as a result of cyber attacks — a key enabler to China’s ability to close the tech gap quickly.)
Here’s an excerpt from one of his latest analysis pieces on China’s military rise, titled Shenlong ‘Divine Dragon’ Takes Flight: Is China developing its first spaceplane?
Beijing may be entering the spaceplane era faster than many would have predicted. A similarly-militarily-relevant system appears to be emerging with the development of China’s own vehicle. Multiple Chinese-language media outlets state that on 8 January 2011, China completed a test flight of the Shenlong (神龙/Divine Dragon) spaceplane.
The test flight announcement from a Sha’anxi TV station came within a month of the U.S. X-37B orbital vehicle’s return to earth after its first test flight and come almost simultaneously with China’s test flight of its J-20 fighter prototype. This reflects China’s growing technical proficiency in the aerospace sector. It hints at China’s pursuit of space systems that can potentially switch quickly between civilian and military missions.
Shenlong’s test also reflects a shrinking time gap between when the U.S. first reveals a prototype military system and when China publicly shows a system comparable in type (if not equivalent in capabilities or immediately operational). For previous aerospace developments, China typically revealed its systems’ existence at least 15 years after the U.S. first showed its analogous platforms.
The immediate implication is that in some areas of space operations, China may be attempting to emulate the U.S. and develop advanced capabilities that could give it strategic advantages; as well as to reveal selected development efforts in order to further patriotism at home and deterrence abroad. Given the high U.S. reliance on space-based C4ISR capabilities, Chinese space platform developments such as Shenlong warrant close attention.
Now, what are the strategic implications of China fielding its own spaceplanes? Here’s what Erickson has to say.
At a minimum, Shenlong appears to be a technological development/validation program. A successful Chinese spaceplane program would have two key strategic implications. First, on the broad level, it would signify that the Chinese space program has come one step closer to being able to build a Space Shuttle-type capability. On a related note, further test flights, particularly if they involve X-37B-style maneuvering by a larger derivative of Shenlong, would also strongly suggest that China’s command and control system for space assets has become much more capable, with commensurate implications for both military and civil space operations. Which service would control Shenlong remains uncertain, as GAD, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and even the Second Artillery contend for control of operational space assets—and some Chinese thinkers argue for the formation of a separate Space Force (天军). Not surprisingly, as Kevin Pollpeter informs us, PLAAF-connected writers are already citing spaceplane development as yet another reason why their service should handle space operations.
Keith Veronese at io9 has a good backgrounder on the potential for Helium-3 (3He) to be used in future 2nd generation fusion as a clean solution to Earth's looming energy conundrum. Veronese's essay over-simplifies a bit - which is ok by me given that it's intended for a broad audience - but overall does a pretty good job of hitting the major points. Not too enthusiastic, not too skeptical... just about right.
If you watched the movie Moon, you remember Helium-3 as the substance Sam Bell was sending back to Earth, during his onerous three year tenure on the Sarang lunar base. Helium-3 is not a piece of science fiction, but an isotope of helium that really could provide for all of our energy needs in the future. With absolutely no pollution.
The Helium-3 fusion process is not simply theoretical — the University of Wisconsin-Madison Fusion Technology Institute successfully performed fusion experiments combining two molecules of Helium-3. Estimates place the efficiency of Helium-3 fusion reactions at seventy percent, out-pacing coal and natural gas electricity generation by twenty percent.
Obtaining helium-3 from lunar regolith will not be an easy task. Best estimates of Helium-3 content place it at 50 parts per billion in lunar soil, calling for the refining of millions of tons of lunar soil before gathering enough Helium-3 to be useful in fusion reactions on Earth. Should we be so eager to strip mine the moon and destroy its surface to provide a clean energy source for Earth?
The first nation (or conglomeration of nations) to establish a Moon colony and begin mining operations will likely set the standard for control of resources on the Moon, especially if exploration of the Western world plays a role as precedent. Let's hope the nation has kind, altruistic motives at hand - otherwise, we might be better off with a private company (as in Moon) making it to the Moon first, with an intention of harvesting its resources.
Following up on one of my earlier posts about the Dawn spacecraft mission, which arrived at the asteroid Vesta in mid-2011. The scientific hypothesis that Vesta is a kind of planetary fossil that sheds important light on the early formation of our solar system appears to have been borne out, and the mission is, in the words of Dawn's deputy PI Carol Raymond, "a spectacular success".
For objects between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, Vesta is second in size only to Ceres. Evidence from Dawn indicates that Vesta formed within two million years of the first assemblage of solids in our early Solar System, and before the planets were assembled. Dawn's measurements confirm that Vesta has a metal-rich core, which would require that Vesta once had enough heat (generated by short-lived radioactive materials) to produce a subsurface ocean of magma. That heat would have led to differentiation of those materials, with denser materials such as iron falling to the asteroid's center. From the BBC story:
Other such bodies in the infant Solar System with magma oceans ended up becoming parts of Earth and the other planets. Somehow, Vesta did not; somehow, it survived obliteration in the cascade of impacts that would have marked those early times. Nothing telescopes see today in the asteroid belt quite matches what Dawn has seen at Vesta, suggesting the mighty rock is unique hangover.
Chris Lewiki of Planetary Resources introduces the Arkyd 102 mini-satellite. PR plans to launch a swarm of these low-cost telescope satellites in the 2014-2015 timeframe, both to identify the size and location of near-Earth asteroids in order to calculate their orbits, and to use light spectra to determine those asteroid's composition. These low-Earth orbit satellite telescopes are also capable of Earth observation. The data they gather can be sold to universities, businesses, and government - all part of PR's short-term business model in addition to their more well-known long-term asteroid mining plans.
This is among the best data visualizations of physical scale - ranging from the nano to the entire observable universe - that I've seen. Nice work.
This interactive infographic from Number Sleuth accurately illustrates the scale of over 100 items within the observable universe ranging from galaxies to insects, nebulae and stars to molecules and atoms. Numerous hot points along the zoom slider allow for direct access to planets, animals, the hydrogen atom and more. Other sites have tried to magnify the universe, but no one else has done so with real photographs and 3D renderings. To fully capture the awe of the vastly different sizes of the Pillars of Creation, Andromeda, the sun, elephants and HIV, you really need to see images, not just illustrations of these items. Our universe really is immensely massive and surprisingly small.