From Dongfanghong-1 to Space Station Completion: Milestones of China’s Space Exploration

2023-January-31 15:55 By:

Early Development

China’s space program began in the 1950s. By 1964, China had launched its first biological rocket into space. In 1970, with the launch of Dongfanghong-1, China became the fifth country to send a satellite into orbit.

Oct. 8, 1956: China opened its first missile and rocket research institute, the No. 5 Research Institute attached to the Ministry of National Defense, with scientist Qian Xuesen as the first director. This is considered the starting point of China's space dream.

July 19, 1964: China launched its first biological experiment into space: a rocket carrying albino rats.

The successful launch of the rocket accumulated valuable experience for astrobiology research, and is an important step forward for China's rocket technology and space exploration.

April 24, 1970: The first Chinese artificial satellite, Dongfanghong-1 (DFH-1), was launched. China became the fifth country in the world to develop and launch an artificial satellite on its own, taking its first step to explore the vastness of space.

DFH-1 had three important impacts on the development of China's space industry. First, it laid a solid foundation for the development of subsequent technologies. Second, it developed a procedure of satellite development. Third, it trained a team of aerospace specialists.

China’s Manned Space Program

On Sept. 21, 1992, China established its manned space program with a three-step strategy. The first step was to send astronauts into space and bring them back safely. The second step was to develop advanced space flight techniques and technologies for such purposes as extra-vehicular activities and orbital docking. The third step was to assemble and operate a permanent manned space station.

Nov. 20, 1999: China launched its first experimental manned spacecraft, Shenzhou-1, with no crew into space, a key step toward sending the country’s astronauts into orbit.

The main goal of the Shenzhou-1 launch was to examine the performance and reliability of the launch vehicle, a Long March-2F carrier rocket, and evaluate key space exploration technology.

Oct. 15, 2003: Shenzhou-5, China’s first manned spacecraft, carrying Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei on board, blasted off into space. China became the third country in the world to send a man into space with its own rocket. Yang spent about 21 hours in space aboard Shenzhou-5.

This was a milestone in China’s manned space program as it marked the successful conclusion of the first step of the strategy.

Sept. 25, 2008: Shenzhou-7, China’s third manned spacecraft, was launched into space with three astronauts, Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haiping, on board.

This was the first spacecraft launch of the second-step of China’s manned space program, with the mission to learn techniques and technologies of extra-vehicular activity.

Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese astronaut to walk in space, and China became the third country in the world to conduct extravehicular activity in space.

Sept. 29, 2011: China launched its experimental space lab, Tiangong-1, into space in preparation to develop a permanent space station. The main task of the Tiangong-1 was to test the technologies in rendezvous and docking between spacecraft, and to accumulate experience for developing a space station.

Tiangong-1 would carry out rendezvous and docking exercises with Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9, and Shenzhou-10 respectively, to test both unmanned and manned docking in space.

Nov. 1, 2011: Shenzhou-8, an unmanned spacecraft, was launched into space.

Nov. 3, 2011: China successfully carried out the first automatic rendezvous and docking exercise between two unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 module. This was a key test to securing a long-term manned presence in space.

June 16, 2012: Shenzhou-9, a manned spacecraft, was sent into space with astronauts Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang, and Liu Yang on board.

China successfully completed its first manned rendezvous and docking mission with the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft and the Tiangong-1 module in space. Two docking tests, one automated and one manual, were accomplished between Shenzhou-9 and Tiangong-1.

Sept. 15, 2016: China launched Tiangong-2, an improved version of Tiangong-1 that was considered China’s first space lab into space. Tiangong-2 was intended as a testbed for key technologies used in the permanent manned space station to be developed later.

May 5, 2020: China’s new large carrier rocket Long March-5B made its maiden flight. Long March-5B is mainly used to launch the modules of China’s space station, and the successful flight inaugurated the "third step" of China's manned space program.

April 29, 2021: China officially kicked off the in-orbit construction of its Tiangong space station with the launch of the first, and central, component of the Tiangong station-the Tianhe core module.

Tiangong, meaning Heavenly Palace, was expected to complete construction by the end of 2022. The successful launch of Tianhe marked China's space station construction has entered the full implementation stage, which laid a solid foundation for the follow-up tasks.

Tianhe will act as the management and control hub of Tiangong, with a node that could dock with up to three spacecraft at a time for short stays, or two for long.

June 17, 2021: Shenzhou-12, a manned spacecraft, was sent into space with astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo on board.

The astronauts would stay in space for three months, setting a new record for China's manned space mission duration. They would help with the construction of the Tiangong space station by working in the Tianhe core module with the tasks of operating and managing the core module, performing extravehicular activities, carrying out space science experiments and technology experiments, and so forth.

This marked the first of four crewed missions scheduled to help with the construction of Tiangong.

July 24, 2022: Wentian, the first lab module of the Tiangong space station, was launched into orbit and docked with the Tianhe core module.

The Wentian module will function both as a backup of the core module and as a powerful scientific experiment platform, mainly focusing on the research of life science and biotechnology.

Oct. 31, 2022: Mengtian, the second lab module and final module of the Tiangong space station, was launched and docked with the space station combination.

Mengtian has similar functions to the Wentian module. Scientific equipment in Mengtian will be used for studying microgravity and carrying out experiments in fluid physics, materials science, combustion science and fundamental physics.

The building of Tiangong into a national space laboratory with three modules marks a milestone in China's three-decade effort to advance its manned space program.

Nov. 3, 2022: With the Tianhe module at the center and the two lab modules on its sides, the formation of the space station’s basic T-shaped configuration was completed, representing a key step toward the completion of Tiangong.

Nov. 29, 2022: Shenzhou-15, a manned spacecraft, was sent into space with astronauts Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming, and Zhang Lu on board.

Astronauts from Shenzhou-14, who were sent to the space station in June, were waiting in space for the arrival of astronauts from Shenzhou-15. After the Shenzhou-15 astronauts entered the Tiangong space station, for the first time, six astronauts were aboard the space station at once, a historic gathering that added the manpower at the in-orbit space lab. During their six-month mission, the Shenzhou-15 crew will carry out tests related to long-term residence in China's space station at its three-module configuration.

The mission would wrap up the last stage of China’s space station construction, begin the station’s permanent occupancy by astronauts, and lead the station to enter its first stage of application and development.

The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System

In 1994, China began development of its own navigation satellite system, BeiDou. The country formulated a three-step strategy, with the aim to build a global satellite navigation system as the end goal. Beidou is the Chinese term for the Big Dipper constellation.

2000: The first BeiDou system, BDS-1, entered service. BDS-1 consisted of three satellites and provided positioning services in China.

With the launch of BDS-1, China became the third country in the world with its own navigation satellite system.

2012: The second BeiDou system, BDS-2, was completed, providing passive positioning services to the Asia-Pacific region.

The BDS-2 system started construction in 2004. By 2012, a total of 14 satellites, including five geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellites, five inclined geosynchronous earth orbit (IGSO) satellites and four medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites, had been launched to complete the deployment.

June 23, 2020: The third BeiDou system, BDS-3, was completed, when the final satellite of BDS-3 was launched into orbit.

A total of 30 satellites, including 24 MEO satellites, three GEO satellites, and three IGSO satellites, had been launched to complete the deployment.

July 31, 2020: BDS-3 was officially commissioned to provide global services, upgrading to a worldwide system. The three-step BDS strategy hence reached a successful conclusion.

Along with positioning, navigation and timing services, the BDS-3 system can provide a variety of value-added services like global search and rescue assistance, short message communication, ground-based and satellite-based augmentation, as well as precise point positioning.

Currently, more than 100 countries and regions are using the BDS-based services. So far, the BDS system has been widely used in transportation, agriculture, forestry and fishery, communication time unification, and other fields. It has enabled the development of transformative technologies like precision farming, digital development and smart port construction in Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.

China’s Lunar Exploration

China’s three-step lunar exploration program of orbiting, landing and bringing back samples from the moon officially began in 2004. The mission was named "Project Chang'e" after the mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon.

Oct. 24, 2007: Chang’e-1, China’s first lunar probe, was sent into space. This made China the fifth country in the world to develop and launch a lunar probe on its own.

Chang'e-1 mapped 3D images of the lunar surface, analyzed the distribution of elements, measured the depth of lunar soil, and explored the environment between Earth and the moon.

Dec. 2, 2013: Chang’e-3, China’s third lunar probe, was sent into space.

Dec. 14, 2013: Chang’e-3 landed on the moon. The mission was a milestone in China's space exploration history as it was the first Chinese spacecraft to soft-land on the surface of an extraterrestrial body and the first craft of any country to achieve this goal in nearly four decades.

Dec. 8, 2018: Chang’e-4, China’s fourth lunar probe, was sent into space.

Jan. 3, 2019: The Chang’e-4 probe became the first spacecraft in the world to make a soft landing on the far side of the moon, on the Von Karman crater in the South Pole-Aitken basin. This began humanity's first close observation of the "dark side of the moon".

Nov. 24, 2020: Chang’e-5, China’s fifth lunar probe, was sent into space with the aim of collecting lunar material to help scientists learn more about the moon’s origins.

Dec. 17, 2020: Chang’e 5 returned to Earth with samples from the moon.

The return of Chang’e-5 marked a successful conclusion of China’s three-step lunar exploration program. Next, China will enter a new phase of lunar exploration with the goal of developing an autonomous lunar research station near the moon’s south pole.

China’s Mars Exploration

On April 22, 2016, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced that the country aimed to launch its first mission to Mars around 2020 and complete orbiting, landing, and roving the red planet in one mission.

July 23, 2020: China launched Tianwen-1 to Mars. The spacecraft consists of two major components-a rover named Zhurong and an unnamed orbiter.

This was China’s first independent mission to another planet.

Feb. 10, 2021: Tianwen-1 successfully entered the orbit around Mars after a nearly 7-month voyage from Earth. It marks the first time that a Chinese spacecraft has orbited an extraterrestrial planet, and a key step in China's current Mars exploration program.

May 15, 2021: Tianwen-1 touched down on Mars with the Zhurong rover, completing China’s first landing on another planet. The country became the second in the world to complete this feat. In addition, China is the first nation to carry out an orbiting, landing and rovering mission on Mars successfully on its maiden attempt. Tianwen-1 is also the second mission to capture audio recordings on the Martian surface.

The Zhurong rover began to travel across the Martian surface a week later, where it has continued moving southward and transmitted data back to Earth. The data has been delivered to Chinese scientists and has helped deepen knowledge of the Red Planet.

The scientific objectives of the Tianwen-1 mission include exploring the Martian surface, obtaining medium-definition images of the entire planet, carrying out extended remote-sensing operations and technological tests.

China’s Solar Exploration

After landing probes on the lunar and Martian surfaces, China has begun to set its exploratory sights on the core of our solar system-the sun, with the launch of the first solar observation satellite, Xihe.

The mission is expected to provide scientists with the first high-quality observation data of the source area of a solar eruption and will improve China's research capability in solar physics. It is very meaningful to the nation's space exploration and satellite technology.

Oct. 14, 2021: China launched its first solar exploration satellite, Xihe.

The satellite, named after the sun goddess in ancient Chinese mythology, has carried out spectral scanning and imaging of the sun's Hα waveband, and has recorded the dynamics of the solar activities in the star's photosphere and chromosphere. The spacecraft has also obtained spectral lines of the sun's Hα waveband, neutral silicon atoms and neutral iron atoms.

All of these accomplishments have never been achieved by scientists before and they are expected to extensively advance the research of the sun and solar system and will give a bigger say to China in the academic field of solar physics.

Editor: JYZ
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