When it comes to space exploration, China is going it alone more and more. The goal is to send an unmanned expedition to Mars in four years' time. DW's Frank Sieren thinks this is realistic.
Earlier this month, China triggered a great deal of excitement when it launched a "hack-proof" quantum communication satellite from the Gobi Desert, as part of its attempts to improve data security by creating encrypted communications. The satellite will be used to experiment with photons and test what is known as quantum entanglement, in which the quantum properties of two particles are linked even when separated. If the XD-2-Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) mission is a success, Chinese astrophysicists will have come further than other pioneers of quantum physicists within 10 years. Yet, this is not enough for the world's most populous country.
Beijing recently announced plans to launch an unmanned expedition to Mars in 2020, a sign that it intends to become a major space player. As evidence that it is not just dreaming, the China National Space Administration revealed the design for a six-wheeled, 200-kilogram rover that will be used to probe whether there is life on Mars by exploring the surface and sending back data about the soil and atmosphere. The government also launched a public competition for a name and logo to ensure the population knows that Chinese scientists have caught up with their international counterparts.
Millions for funding
This was also a message to the younger generation that there is a future for research in China; that there is plenty of generous funding and decisions are made fast and in an uncomplicated manner. The plan features one excitement after the next. In September, China will launch the country's second space laboratory, Tiangong 2 ("Heavenly Palace") and if it gets into orbit, two astronauts will be sent into space to spend a month there. Next year, a Long March 7 rocket will launch Tianzhou 1, China's first cargo resupply vessel, to dock with the space lab. China is expected to start building its first fully-equipped space station in two years' time.
If all goes to plan, the core module Tianhe 1 ("Heavenly harmony") will be sent in 2018 by a Long March 7. So if the International Space Station (ISS) comes out of service in 2024 as planned, China will be the only country with a permanent station in space.
China has already been looking for signs of life in space from the earth and it now has the biggest telescope in the world. The final piece of the 500-meter-wide Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) was fitted in the southwest province of Guizhou in early July. It is similar but much bigger than its US counterpart, the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and will be opened up to researchers worldwide within a few years.
Searching for life in space
It took five years to build the station and cost $180 million dollars. Some 9,000 people had to be relocated to "create a sound electromagnetic wave environment." The telescope will be used to probe gravitational waves as well as to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. It will be a question of deciphering whether signals are indications of natural phenomena or evidence of alien life. Radio waves from the Milky Way as well as its 100 closest galaxies will be analyzed.
Since the US has cut down funding for such space projects in recent years, the telescope will put China at the height of the hunt for extraterrestial life. Russia is also interested and the Russian billionaire Yuri Millner last year contributed $100 million to the project. He will personally select a team that will eavesdrop on the universe. It will spend a majority of its time in Guizhou and not in the US.