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SPACE FLIGHT 2006 - The Year in Review

Asian Space Activities

China, India and Japan have space programs capable of launch and satellite development and operations. Kazakhstan is in the early stages of joining the space-faring community.


China, in effect, has two major space agencies: the PLA (People's Liberation Army) for crewed and military programs, and the CNSA (China National Space Administration) for civil/scientific projects. With a total of six launches in 2006 (2005: five; 2004: eight; 2003: six; 2002: 4; 2001: 1), China currently shares the third place of spacefaring nations with Japan, after Russia and USA, having made worldwide headlines in 2003 with its successful orbital launch, by the PLA, of the first Chinese Taikonaut in the 4760-kg (10,500 lb) spacecraft Shenzhou 5 (Divine Vessel 5) on a 21-hour mission, and in 2005 with the launch of the 7700-kg (17,000 lb) two-seater Shenzhou 6 carrying the two Taikonauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng on a 75-orbit and 115 hrs 32 min flight, designed to further China's human spaceflight experience as it works toward developing a manned space station and to serve as a symbol of national pride, demonstrating China's technological prowess.

The launch vehicle of the Shenzhou spaceships was the new human-rated Long March 2F rocket. China's Long March (Chang Zheng, CZ) series of launch vehicles consists of 12 differing versions, which by the end of 2006 have made 94 flights, sending 107 payloads (satellites and spacecraft) into space, with 91% success rate. China has three modern (but land-locked, thus azimuth-restricted) launch facilities: at Jiuquan (Base 20, also known as Shuang Cheng-Tzu/East Wind) for low Earth orbit (LEO) missions, Taiyuan (Base 25) for sun-synchronous missions, and Xichang (Base 27) for geostationary missions. Development of a less restrictive launch site, on the tropical island Hainan in the South China Sea, is under consideration.

Its six major launches in 2006 demonstrated China's growing space maturity. On April 26, a CZ-4B launched the Chinese Yaogan 1 remote sensing satellite, on September 9 a CZ-2C the Shijan SJ-8 science research satellite (seeds), followed on September 12 by the Zhongxing-22A (ZX-22A) military comsat on a CZ-3A into geosynchronous orbit, on October 23 by two imaging satellites (Shijan SJ-6-2A & -2B) on a CZ-4B, on October 28 by a CZ-3B with the Xinnuo-2 (Sinosat-2), which suffered payload failure after launch, and on December 8 by a CZ-3A with a weather satellite (Fengyun-2D), winding up a record of 53 consecutive launch successes for the Long March, which in its two-stage 2C version has a lift-off weight of 211 tons (422,400 lb), a total length of 41.9 m (137.5 ft), a diameter of the rocket and payload fairing of 3.35 m (11 ft), and a low earth orbit launching capacity of 1 ton (2200 lb). The 3B version has a liftoff weight of 468 tons (936,760 lb), a total length of 54.9 m (180 ft) and a payload capability to low geosynchronous orbit of 4.95 tons (9900 lb).


Japan's space program, in 2006, came back strong after returning the H2-A launch vehicle to flight in 2005 after its major failure in 2003, making it the nation's workhorse. Of the total of six launches by Japan's space agency JAXA in 2006, four involved the H-2A (raising its total number of launch attempts to nine) and two the M-V rocket. A major JAXA launch on an M-V, on February 21, was the 925-kg (2,035-lb) Astro-F (Akari) infrared observatory in a 462-mi.-high polar orbit. Its 68.5-cm telescope, cooled to 6K (Kelvin), in 2006 provided images of a galaxy and nebula thousands of light-years from Earth that established the satellite as an important new IR observatory.

After its launch on July 10, 2005, from JAXA's Uchinoura Space Center on an M-V rocket, the X-ray astronomy satellite Astro-E2 Suzaku (red bird of the South), the fifth in a series of Japanese X-ray astronomy satellites, began losing the cryogenic helium required for cooling the X-ray spectrometer (XRS). However, the Suzaku satellite has two other instruments, the X-ray Imaging Spectrometer and the Hard X-ray Detector, which continue to provide new and exciting research.

Also in the headlines in 2006 was Japan's Space Engineering Spacecraft Hayabusa (peregrine falcon, also: MUSES-C). Launched on May 9, 2003, from the Kagoshima Space Center in southern Japan on an ISAS solid-propellant M-5 rocket, the probe made a successful touchdown on the Asteroid Itokawa on November 11, 2005, and a second on November 25, to collect samples to bring back to Earth. Hayabusa then encountered serious technical difficulties that cast doubt on its ability to return to Earth. However, contact was reestablished in December 2005, and in March 2006 JAXA announced that communication with Hayabusa had been recovered and its position established at about 13,000 km ahead of Itokawa. In June 2006, two out of four ion engines were reportedly working normally, which will be sufficient for the return journey to Earth, where its reentry capsule with the sample should arrive in June 2010, to be recovered by parachute at Woomera, Australia.

In March 2006, the Japanese NICT (National Institute of Information and Communication Technology) conducted a successful laser transmission test between the JAXA satellite Oicets (Optical Inter-orbit Communications Engineering Test Satellite) in an ongoing research program aimed at developing a global broadband communications network that is wireless, seamless and ubiquitous, using ground, aviation and satellite systems.
In its longer-range view, Japan's space agency JAXA is studying versions of a new generation launch vehicle, essentially a heavier lift version of the H-2A with 10-20% greater lift capacity than its predecessor, which would put it into the Delta-4 class.

One area of great promise for Japan continues to be the ISS Program, in which the country is participating with a sizeable 12.6% share. Its $3-billion contributions to the ISS are the 15-ton pressurized Japanese Experiment Module (JEM) called Kibo (hope), along with its ancillary remote manipulator arm and unpressurized porch-like exposed facility for external payloads, and the H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV), which will carry about 6 metric tons of provisions to the ISS once or twice a year, launched on an H-2A. On May 30, 2003, the Mitsubishi-built JEM arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Kibo will be launched to the ISS on the space shuttle (STS-124, currently expected for April 2008), accompanied by Japanese astronaut Dr. Takao Doi, who has flown on the shuttle before, becoming the first Japanese to perform a spacewalk.


India's emerging space program, with only one launch attempt in 2006, suffered a severe setback with the failure of its first Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-F02) carrying the INSAT-4C communication satellite, when the rocket veered off its trajectory when its first stage failed to separate after its launch on July 10 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota and fell into the Bay of Bengal. The 2,168-kg INSAT-4C satellite, designed to boost Direct-to-Home television service and digital news gathering, was the heaviest in its class, and INSAT 4C was to be the first of 15 INSAT satellites, all to be launched by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization), each with a mission life of 10 years. This was the first launch of GSLV from the Rs 350-crore sophisticated launch pad, commissioned in May 2005.

India's main satellite programs are the INSAT (Indian National Satellite) telecommunications system, the IRS (Indian Remote Sensing) satellites for earth resources, the METSAT weather satellites, and the new GSat series of large (up to 2.5-tons) experimental geostationary comsats. India's main launchers today are the PSLV (Polar Space Launch Vehicle) and the Delta 2-class GSLV (Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle).

India is working on plans to explore the Moon, with the announced intent to send an unmanned probe there in March 2008. ISRO calls the Moon flight project Chandrayaan Pratham, which has been translated as "First Journey to the Moon" or "Moonshot One". The 525-kg (1,157-lbs) Chandrayaan-1 would be launched on a PSLV rockets. After first circling Earth in a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), the spacecraft would fly on out into a polar orbit of the Moon some 60 miles above the surface, carrying X-ray and gamma-ray spectrometers and sending data back to Earth for producing a high-resolution digital map of the lunar surface. The project's main objectives are high-resolution photography of the lunar surface using remote-sensing instruments sensitive to visible light, near-infrared light, and low-energy and high-energy X-rays. Space aboard the satellite also will be available for instruments from scientists in other countries. Chandrayaan-1 is expected to be the forerunner of more ambitious planetary missions in the years to come, including landing robots on the moon and visits by Indian spacecraft to other planets in the solar system.