China rocket fail­ure likely to set back next space mis­sions

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

The fail­ure of China’s Long March 5 rocket deals a rare set­back to China’s highly suc­cess­ful space pro­gram that could de­lay plans to bring back moon sam­ples and of­fer ri­val In­dia a chance to move ahead in the space rank­ings. Ex­perts say the still un­ex­plained mishap shows that for all its tri­umphs, China’s space pro­gram is not im­mune to the tremen­dous dif­fi­cul­ties and risks in­volved in work­ing with such cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy.

“China’s ap­proach has been slow and pru­dent, try­ing to avoid this kind of ‘fail­ure,’ even though they knew it was go­ing to oc­cur sooner or later,” Joan John­son-Freese, an ex­pert on China’s space pro­gram at the US Naval War Col­lege, wrote in an email. Au­thor­i­ties say the Long March 5 Y2 that took off Sun­day in the sec­ond launch of a Long March 5 rocket, suf­fered an ab­nor­mal­ity dur­ing the flight af­ter what ap­peared to be a suc­cess­ful liftoff from the Wen­chang Space Launch Cen­ter in the south­ern is­land prov­ince of Hainan.

The in­ci­dent is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the au­thor­i­ties have yet to com­ment on pos­si­ble causes, or any knock-on ef­fects on the pro­gram as a whole. In a tes­ti­mony to the high re­spect China’s pro­gram now com­mands, the fail­ure drew wide­spread com­men­tary in the space com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing from SpaceX founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Elon Musk, who tweeted Sun­day: “Sorry to hear about China launch fail­ure to­day. I know how painful that is to the peo­ple who de­signed & built it.”

Nick­named “Chubby 5” for its mas­sive, 5me­ter girth, the Long March-5 is China’s largest and most brawny launch ve­hi­cle, ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing 25 tons of pay­load into low-earth or­bit and 14 tons to the more dis­tant geo­sta­tion­ary trans­fer or­bit in which a satel­lite or­bits con­stantly above a fixed po­si­tion on the earth’s sur­face. That’s more than dou­ble that of the Long March 7, the back­bone of the Chi­nese launch­ing fleet, mak­ing it the linch­pin for launch du­ties re­quir­ing such mas­sive heft such as in­ter­plan­e­tary travel.

First among those is the mis­sion slated for Novem­ber by the Chang’e 5 probe to land a rover on the moon be­fore re­turn­ing to Earth with sam­ples - the first time that has been done since 1976. China’s most tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing mis­sion to date, it had been put off be­fore be­cause of fund­ing and then tech­nol­ogy, John­son-Freese said. While the Long March 5 has suf­fered other set­backs, the lu­nar mis­sion is “cer­tainly the most vis­i­ble one,” she said.

Find­ing a fix

Other up­com­ing Chi­nese mis­sions in­clude the launch next year of the 20-ton core mod­ule for China’s or­bit­ing Tian­gong 2 space sta­tion, along with spe­cial­ized com­po­nents for the 60ton sta­tion that is due to come on-line in 2022 and other mas­sive pay­loads in fu­ture. The Long March 5 was also due to be the launch ve­hi­cle for a Mars rover planned for the mid 2020s. Prob­lems with the Long March 5 may stem from its use of liq­ue­fied gases that are less sta­ble than the solid pro­pel­lants used in other rock­ets, said Mor­ris Jones, an Aus­tralian space an­a­lyst and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to SpaceDaily.com.

Un­like ear­lier rock­ets that used highly toxic fu­els, the Long March 5 burns a more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and less ex­pen­sive keroseneliq­uid oxy­gen-liq­uid hy­dro­gen mix - which is more com­plex and harder to reg­u­late. Jones called such set­backs typ­i­cal of the de­vel­op­ment phase of a new rocket and said ad­di­tional launches may be re­quired to work out the kinks. Sun­day’s launch fail­ure will de­lay the Chang’e 5 mis­sion at least un­til next year, while there may also be a small de­lay in launch­ing the space sta­tion com­po­nents, Jones said.

Find­ing a fix “takes a lot of time and ef­fort but there is no other way to pro­duce a re­li­able rocket,” Jones said. Test launched for the first time last year in what had been a tow­er­ing suc­cess, the 57-me­ter two-stage rocket is just slightly less pow­er­ful than the most pow­er­ful rocket in ser­vice, the US’ United Launch Al­liance’s Delta IV, al­though SpaceX’s Fal­con Heavy is de­signed to carry a pay­load into low-earth or­bit of more than 50 tons. Since the first launch in 1970, China’s Long March se­ries of rock­ets have been a re­mark­ably solid bet, achiev­ing a suc­cess rate of around 95 per­cent.

That’s helped fa­cil­i­tate a pro­gram that con­ducted its first crewed space mis­sion in 2003, mak­ing China only the third coun­try af­ter Rus­sia and the US to do so, put a pair of space sta­tions into or­bit, and landed its Yutu, or “Jade Rab­bit” rover on the moon. Ad­min­is­tra­tors sug­gest a manned land­ing on the moon may also be in the pro­gram’s fu­ture. Not all has been smooth sail­ing, how­ever. A Long March 3B rocket launched June 18 launch placed its com­mu­ni­ca­tions satel­lite in a lower-than planned for or­bit. Though the satel­lite is climb­ing into its proper al­ti­tude on its own, the ef­fort will re­duce its use­ful life­span in space.

A least two sim­i­lar in­ci­dents re­port­edly oc­curred last year. With two mishaps com­ing so close to­gether, Chi­nese space of­fi­cials may de­cide to take a pause to re-eval­u­ate man­u­fac­tur­ing qual­ity or other as­pects of the pro­gram, said Stephen Clark of Space­flight Now. That may in­clude launch­ing an­other Long March 5 test flight be­fore at­tempt­ing the Chang’e 5 mis­sion, Clark said. Both Clark and John­son-Freese said they hope the fail­ure doesn’t de­ter Chi­nese of­fi­cials in their pur­suit of greater trans­parency and in­ter­na­tional par­tic­i­pa­tion in the coun­try’s space pro­gram.

Yet, ri­vals, pri­mar­ily In­dia, may see the set­back as an op­por­tu­nity to steal a march on China, whose geostrate­gic in­flu­ence has ben­e­fited sig­nif­i­cantly from its role as a tech­nol­ogy leader in space, said John­son-Freese. In­dia’s Mars Or­biter Mis­sion, called Man­galyaan, is al­ready or­bit­ing the red planet, years be­fore China is ready to launch such a mis­sion, and it won ac­claim and a place in the record books ear­lier this year by plac­ing 104 nano satel­lites in or­bit from a sin­gle rocket. “The fail­ure of the Long March 5 may pro­vide a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for In­dia,” said John­son-Freese.—AP

BEI­JING: In this photo, a girl stands in front of mod­els of Chi­nese space rock­ets, in­clud­ing the Long March 5, sec­ond from left, at the China Bei­jing In­ter­na­tional High-Tech Expo in Bei­jing. —AP

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