With the launch of a probe that will study the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field on Tuesday, the European and Chinese space agencies embark on their first joint mission in space.
Double Star will study space storms.
China on Tuesday launched a research satellite developed in part by the European Space Agency. It marks the first time Europe and the Asian country have conducted a joint space mission. ESA officials described it as an "historic international collaboration."
"Science is all about common goals and sharing," David Southwood, ESA’s director of science told DW-WORLD. "It’s also about peace. And this launch the ESA is doing with China will test how we work together. It’s the first time China has cooperated with another country on such a major space project."
The rocket carrying the "Tan Ce 1" spacecraft blasted off on Tuesday from a base in Xichang in the Sichuan province of southwestern China. Chinese engineers designed the satellite itself, and several European research institutes developed eight of the satellite’s onboard scientific instruments. ESA also contributed €8 million to the project.
Scanning the magnetosphere
Like ESA’s previous Cluster mission, the 330 kilogram Double Star satellite will scan the Earth’s magnetic field for 18 months, studying the effects of the Sun on the Earth’s environment. The first probe will circle the equator from a distance of about 67,000 kilometers from the Earth and a second, scheduled for launch in June, will scan the poles.
This mission consists of two satellites, the equatorial satellite DSP-E, following a 550 x 60 000 kilometre orbit, inclined at 28.5 degrees to the Equator and the polar satellite DSP-P, following a 350 x 25 000 kilometre orbit inclined at 90 degrees to the Equator.
"This will be the first time in the history of space flight research that we will be able to study the development of space storms," the project’s creator, Chinese professor Liu Zhenxing, said.
A history of cooperation
In 1993, China began participation in the ESA’s Cluster mission, which also studies the earth’s atmosphere. Four years later, the Chinese invited the Europeans to participate in the Double Star project, which aims to complement four existing European probes with two new spacecraft developed by the Chinese. In addition to providing funding and instruments, ESA will also help the Chinese control and track the satellites from its satellite tracking station in Villafranca, Spain.
Though a cooperation agreement for scientific exchange between China and ESA has been in place since 1980, the Double Star project marks the most ambitious Sino-European cooperation in space yet as well as the first time they have developed a spacecraft together. China has come a long way since it launched its first satellite into space in 1970. This year, it triumphed again by becoming the third country to conduct a manned space mission. But European scientists still see it as a complementary agency rather than a competitor.
"We would like to see China get more involved in the exploration of the solar system," said ESA’s Southwood. "Not only on its own, but also as a partner cooperating on the international level."
Next step: Galileo
And that is likely to happen soon. In October, China became an official partner in Europe’s ambitious Galileo project, agreeing to invest €200 million in the global satellite navigation system. Galileo is expected to provide the first commercial competition to the United State’s global positioning system (GPS) and Russia’s GLONASS, both of which can be scrambled by the military at any time. The first operational Galileo satellites are expected to be launched between 2005-2006.