TOKYO China's space program has come a long way over the decades, but a flurry of notable achievements this year indicates that the country's efforts to explore the heavens are progressing faster than ever.
At this rate of development, China's goal of sending people to the moon by 2030 appears entirely realistic.
2016 marks the "start of a dramatic leap," said Teruhisa Tsujino, an expert on China's space efforts and a visiting fellow at Japan's Center for Research and Development Strategy, an affiliate of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
Two days after the Shenzhou-11, a manned spacecraft carrying two astronauts, was launched on Oct. 17, it docked with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab. The astronauts spent about 30 days in the lab -- the longest for a Chinese mission -- and returned home safely on Nov. 18. China has now sent 14 astronauts into space.
On Nov. 3, the country launched the massive Long March-5 rocket into space. With a diameter of about 5 meters and a satellite-carrying capacity of 23 tons, it is second in size only to the Delta IV Heavy, a U.S. rocket. China says the behemoth is capable of reaching the moon.
This year also saw the Long March-7 rocket sent into space. That was significant for two reasons: It was the first launch from the country's fourth launch facility, and it used a low-contamination fuel whose main ingredient is kerosene, making it more environmentally friendly.
ELITE CLUB China established its space program in the 1950s. In the 1970s, it became the fifth nation to send a satellite into orbit; in 2003, China became the third country to carry out a manned space mission.
If the number of rocket launches serves as any kind of gauge, China is fast becoming a space superpower. In 2011, it overtook the U.S. in number of launches per year. The following year, it topped Russia in satellite launches. Beijing is planning 26 launches this year. By September, it had carried out 14, on a par with the U.S.'s 16 and Russia's 14.
By the end of 2015, China had conducted a total of 230 launches, the fourth-highest figure in the world. Of those, 94.3% were successful. Only Europe had a better record.
Tsujino attributed these impressive results to "space development efforts carried out very efficiently under the autocratic leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."
He pointed out how the government establishes clear long-term targets. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, a governmental research organ, has set a goal of sending manned missions to the moon by 2030 and to Mars by 2050, for example. The State Council, meanwhile, has laid out an infrastructure development plan for every five years until 2025.
Also helping speed the program along, Tsujino said, is ample personnel and funding support from the army.
LUNAR DREAMS Currently, one of China's big focuses is the moon. Before attempting a manned lunar exploration mission by 2030, it wants to put the Chang'e-4 lunar probe on the dark side of the moon by 2018, something no other country has done. Among other things, the probe would bring specimens back to Earth.
The manned mission, if carried out around 2030, would be the first since America's Apollo space program some 60 years earlier.
China may still need to hone its technology if it is to meet its space goals. For example, expanding the use of liquid hydrogen, a propellant increasingly used by Japan, the U.S. and Europe, would improve the reliability of its missions.
Lack of experience could also be a hindrance. Tsujino cited the failed launch in August of the Long March-4C rocket, which was carrying an earth observation satellite. It was China's first unsuccessful launch in two years and eight months. Also, while China's space program has made big advances, it still depends on technologies that have already been employed in the U.S. and Europe.