China wants to build a kilometer-sized starship!

While major technical hurdles stand in the way, an extra-large spacecraft (starship) could have broad applications

By DAVE MAKICHUK

In an effort to galvanize NASA’s return to the forefront, then-US Vice President Mike Pence sought to re-create the 1960s Cold War space race. Then the United States beat the Soviet Union to the lunar surface, The Washington Post reported.

But this time the role of rival was played not by the Soviet Union, but by China. Pence warned that China was trying “to seize the lunar strategic high ground.”

Bill Nelson, President Biden’s new NASA administrator, has carried on that hawkish rhetoric. He is casting China as “a very aggressive competitor” that has big ambitions in space and is challenging America’s leadership. The question one should ask is – what American leadership is he talking about?

“Watch the Chinese,” he recently warned.

Watch them, indeed!

They have now announced one of the most ambitious space projects in human history. It is a plan to build a kilometer-level starship at least be 10 times the length of the International Space Station (ISS). The news that will likely reverberate with NASA and the Pentagon, The Global Times reported.

Experts say that a number of major technical and management hurdles stand in the way. However, the in-orbit assembly of an extra-large spacecraft could have broad applications, such as the building of a space power plant that will generate electricity for the planet.

China is studying the project as part of its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) period. It is expected to become a major strategic vehicle for its future use of space resources, deep-space explorations and long-term human stays in outer space.

Deep Space Nine 

As soon as the news came out, it lit up the Chinese internet, especially among space sci-fi fans. Some thrilled netizens jokingly compared it to the “starships” in movies and TV series, such as Deep Space Nine.

However, space experts say that there will be a great deal of challenges that must be overcome, apart from the huge demand for manpower and resources, considering the tremendous size and complexity of the spacecraft.

“Take the ISS as an example. Due to thrust limitations of launching vehicles, it also adopted the approach to assemble the parts in-orbit, which were delivered in separate spaceflights over a number of years,” Pang Zhihao, a Beijing-based space expert and researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology, told the Global Times.

“It took the ISS 12 years — from 1998 to 2010 — to finally complete the construction. And by the time of completion, the first module that was launched more than a decade prior had almost reached its lifespan.

“It can be speculated that the kilometer-level spacecraft will take even longer to build. And it will have much higher requirements for the lifespan of its core components, and the ability to replace components flexibly,” he added. 

Researchers will be tasked to minimize the weight of the modules and the number of launches to reduce construction costs, Pang said.

They also must ensure the controllability of the overall structure, so that attitude drifts, deformation and vibration can be limited during in-orbit assembly.

The complexity not only rests on technical issues, but also the overall planning and management of the project. It must also consider the threats of space debris.

Many difficulties but massive potential

The difficulties to construct such a spacecraft are great. However, experts say it has massive scientific and military potential.

It could be used for building a space power plant. Therefore enabling a large-scale all-weather power generation by transferring solar power to electricity and beaming it down to Earth. 

China has also made breakthroughs in developing its new super-heavy-lift carrier rocket. It is rolling out the country’s first 9.5-meter-diameter rocket tank bottom and liquid booster engine earlier this month. 

The launch vehicle may point to the Long March 9 carrier rocket. It will be used for future crewed lunar missions, deep space exploration and space infrastructure.

China launched the core of its space station in April, and sent three astronauts up in June.

The space station probably won’t be complete until late 2022. However, there is already a long queue of experiments from across the world waiting to go up, Nature.com reported.

Scientists say that the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) has tentatively approved more than 1,000 experiments, several of which have already been launched.

Before April, the International Space Station (ISS) was the only space laboratory in orbit. Many researchers say Tiangong (or “heavenly palace”) is a welcome addition for astronomical and Earth observation, and for studying how microgravity and cosmic radiation affect phenomena such as bacterial growth and fluid mixing.

Are crewed space stations too costly?

However, others argue that crewed space stations are costly, and serve more of a political than a scientific purpose.

Increased scientific access to space is of scientific benefit globally. It does not matter who builds and operates platforms.

“We need more space stations, because one space station is definitely not enough,” adds Agnieszka Pollo, an astrophysicist at the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Warsaw who is part of a team sending an experiment to study Y-ray bursts.

Meanwhile, don’t look for any international cooperation any time soon.

NASA has been barred by law since 2011 from partnering with China! No Chinese astronaut has ever been aboard the ISS, which has been host to astronauts from nearly 20 nations.

There is no prospect of that changing anytime soon in a Washington where China is seen as a fierce competitor in a wide range of technological endeavors, from quantum computers to the rollout of 5G.

That is especially true for space, because the technologies used in space also are used for national defense.

“These deep concerns about China as a military competitor forestalls cooperation in dual-use technologies. There are no technologies used in space that aren’t dual-use,” he said.

US and Chinese cooperation in space would require the kind of detente that the US and Soviet Union achieved during the Cold War.

“But we are very far from that.”


Sources: The Global Times, The Washington PostCenter for Strategic and International StudiesNature.comChina Academy of Space Technology

Singapore’s foray into space

Boldly going where no little red dot has gone before – Singapore space industry


By Derrick A Paulo, Lee Li Ying and Sharifah Fadhilah Alshahab

The efforts of the country’s budding space industry are giving the Republic a larger stake in the space race than many people may think. The programme Why It Matters looks at the opportunities and obstacles.

The first made-in-Singapore commercial earth observation satellite was launched in December 2015. A global network of satellites may be on the horizon

Over the past four years, Singapore-based start-up Transcelestial has made a device called Centauri. It is about the size of a shoe box. Its aim: To provide internet connectivity that is around 1,000 times faster, or more, than now.

It just needs to connect to a satellite using laser communications. No, make that a global satellite network the company wants to put into space.

Working from home at the speed of light, however, “isn’t even scratching the surface of the capability” of laser-linked satellites, says Transcelestial co-founder Rohit Jha.

He is looking into connecting “roughly three and a half billion people” — about half the world who have no internet connectivity or have “very basic 2G-level phone services”.

“All you have to do is position a satellite above (them), and drop a laser link. And you can power high-bandwidth internet to everyone,” he tells the programme Why It Matters.

Expecting a roll-out by the end of 2024

Transcelestial is still doing research and development for its global space network, and eyeing a roll-out by the end of 2024.

The start-up is not alone in aiming high. There are more than 30 firms and over 1,000 people in Singapore’s budding space industry.

And the effort they are putting into space technology is giving the nation a larger stake in the space race than many people may think.

Since 2004, investors have put US$135 billion (S$183 billion) into the global space sector. Singapore, though a little red dot, accounts for 7 per cent of the global share.

By 2040, the global space industry could generate revenue of US$1.1 trillion, according to Morgan Stanley estimates. It is a race for big money, even as Singapore’s foray into space could help to solve world problems too.

‘LOW-HANGING FRUIT’

For space superpowers and private companies with deep pockets, going into space also means attempting missions to the Moon and beyond.

But that is not the kind of breakthrough that Singapore Space and Technology Association president Jonathan Hung thinks the Republic needs.

Size is a consideration here — the Kennedy Space Centre, where such missions blast off in the United States, occupies a site that is 80 per cent of Singapore’s land area.

“We’ve got to pick and choose what we want to do. Right now, Singapore’s play is very much within the satellite domain. Now, satellites can do quite a lot. Specifically, we cover telecommunications. We also cover advanced navigation,” says Hung.

These are some of the “low-hanging fruit” he believes should not be underestimated. “There are good jobs. We can create … advanced manufacturing activities. All these things will help regenerate and spur the economy on.”

Jonathan Hung has been wooing government players, research foundations and international partners for the past 14 years to make Singapore a bona fide space hub

There are now more than 2500 satellites orbiting the earth – there will be more

Without satellites providing location tracking, smartphone apps that people take for granted, like ride-hailing services and Google Maps, would stop working. There are now more than 2,500 satellites orbiting the earth, and experts say there will be more.

These go as far as 35,000 kilometres away. It is the orbital altitude of geosynchronous satellites transmitting television and other signals to the ground. There are also satellites orbiting at lower levels.

Transcelestial, for example, plans to put its satellites at around 1,000 km above ground. It is a reason its signals would be faster — taking “less than five milliseconds” instead of a delay of “almost a second”, says Jha.

Another benefit of its satellite technology, especially to a city like Singapore, could be the cheaper and thus faster roll-out of 5G.

“If you’re building fibre networks, a kilometer of fibre is roughly around US$100,000 to US$150,000 … Our device usually comes in at one-tenth of that price,” cites Jha.

EYE IN THE SKY

Satellite products and services are driving more than half of space-related commercial activities worldwide. In Singapore, the first commercial remote sensing satellite built here — called TeLEOS-1 — was launched in 2015 by Singapore Technologies (ST) Electronics.

The satellite gave the Republic an eye in the sky to see what was going in the region, with geospatial analysts studying its pictures to provide insights for organisations willing to pay for them.

There are just two problems with TeLEOS-1. It cannot see through clouds, and is blind at night.

So engineers are putting together something with a more powerful vision. TeLEOS-2, which is now undergoing testing. It will carry radar that can capture images day or night, and no matter what the weather condition.

But it may be a couple of years before the satellite is launched.

A team of 70 engineers took five years to develop TeLEOS-1, considering the space environment a satellite must operate in “compared to our everyday electronics”, as systems engineer Tan Chek Wu puts it.

For example, it alternates between heat and cold “14 to 15 times a day” in orbit, cites Tan, who is with ST Engineering’s satellite systems. It also travels at “more than 7 km per second” — even airplane speeds do not come close.

And to ensure that a satellite can “survive the vibrations of the journey” on a rocket launched into space, his team must “put it on a big shaker” first.

NANOSATELLITES AND 18-METRE ROCKETS

While the TeLEOS-1 is a 400-kg satellite, former defence engineer Ng Zhen Ning thinks the start-up he co-founded in 2017, NuSpace, has a winning edge with satellites weighing less than 10 kg.

These nanosatellites can do almost anything conventional satellites can, like monitoring weather conditions or tracking internet data.

“It’s all thanks to miniaturisation of technology,” says Ng, citing the mobile phone as an example. “That has shrunk to the size of an iPhone. The same thing has happened for nanosatellites.”

There may be a vast expanse of space, but budgets are limited. “Building such satellites is roughly 50 times cheaper,” points out the 30-year-old, who expects the cost to go down further, together with the mass manufacturing of satellites.

“We’re working with contract manufacturers to figure out how we can streamline the entire assembly process. And hopefully by 2024, we should be able to have this assembly line here in Singapore.”

NuSpace’s satellites each weigh up to 4.5 kg

Small satellites have some downsides, however. Big satellites get priority on rockets because they take up most of the space. So if their production schedules are delayed, then everyone else must wait.

Smaller spacecraft for small satellites?

Rocket makers are now coming up with smaller spacecraft so small satellites can have a dedicated ride to space. In Singapore, 29-year-old Simon Gwozdz is looking into this, starting with a research rocket as a prototype for something more powerful.

His dream rocket would be 18 metres high, or six storeys. This would still be six times smaller than some of the largest rockets ever made, as high as 110 metres.

His grander plan, however, is to launch rockets from locations nearer to Singapore.

“Being close to the equator is very, very helpful in launching a rocket. It can go into any kind of orbit. (It) means you can get into any kind of market niche,” says the founder of Equatorial Space Systems.

Compared with the polar regions, an equatorial launch would also save fuel, as the surface at the equator moves faster, giving a rocket an extra push.

“We don’t have much land in Singapore … but there’s a lot of sea. And sea launching has also been done for a number of years,” notes Gwozdz.

“All you have to do is take a barge, retrofit it a little bit, install some extra equipment, and you can use it.”

The ideal location to him would be the Indian Ocean, “because we won’t be overflying anybody’s territory”. He is also looking at the South China Sea, “not very far from the coastline of Johor”.

“We’re currently exploring the possibility of conducting launch operations from that site,” he says, while noting that co-ordination with Malaysia and also Indonesia is “absolutely necessary” in any rocket launch.

Space is becoming a ground for doing business

He thinks it is worth investing in sending a rocket to space, because “in 20 years’ time, a country with no sovereign launch capability will be … like a country that doesn’t have its own airline”.

“Why should we invest in pretty (much) anything, in Changi Airport in the first place?” he adds. “Space is becoming a ground for doing business, on top of the exploration of more lofty ideas of course.”


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