New rocket launch site will boost China's space reach
SHUHEI YAMADA, Nikkei staff writer
BEIJING -- China has completed construction of a new large rocket launch facility in Wenchang, on the island province of Hainan.
It is the fourth location for launching satellites in China. The Asian superpower will use the site for new rockets capable of carrying the large equipment needed to build its own space station.
The country also aims to use the new center to launch rockets for other nations and companies.
Yang Liwei, Deputy Director of China Manned Space Engineering Office, told the Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers held in Beijing in mid-September that basic construction of the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center has been completed.
Chinese space authorities began construction of the new facility in September 2009 by redesigning a base previously used for small rocket launches. They reportedly spent 5 billion yuan ($815 million) on the project.
The center is located at 19 degrees north latitude, the closest launch site to the equator in the country. The close proximity to the equator enables rockets to save a lot of fuel.
Chinese space authorities said that rockets can carry 10-15% more weight when they are launched from the new base compared with those sent into space from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province, the second closest to the equator.
The Wenchang base also has the advantage of being accessible by sea. The other three bases are all inland for easy rail transportation of rockets and satellites from factories, but this limits the possible equipment size to about 3.35 meters in diameter. However, sea access means that larger equipment can be transported for launch at the new facility.
The island base can launch 10 to 12 rockets annually and will be used primarily as a hub for the Long March-5, a large rocket currently being developed.
The Long March-5 has a fuselage of 5 meters in diameter and will be able to carry up to 25 tons to the low-earth orbit, one of the highest transportation capacities in the world. The first Long March-5 is scheduled to be launched as early as 2015.
China plans to start operations at its own space station around 2022. To accumulate the necessary know-how for building the space station, the country will launch the Tiangong-2 unmanned space laboratory in 2016.
According to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the world's largest number of rocket launches are Russia's 395 Proton rockets, followed by the U.S.'s 365 Delta rockets and then Europe's 217 Ariane rockets as of May 8, 2014.
China's government, military and state-owned enterprises have worked together on space development and the nation has now joined the ranks of those offering rocket launch services. It sent satellites into space for Brazil and Bolivia in 2013.
Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Heavy successfully launched the Himawari-8 new weather satellite into orbit on Oct. 7. Now, competition for launch orders is expected to intensify.
Mitsubishi Heavy is reviewing some one million parts used in its new core rocket in an effort to cut its launch price by half. A cost that now stands at about 10 billion yen.
Highest in Asia
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who attended the Planetary Congress, told reporters in Beijing that China's manned space mission technology has reached the same level as Russia. He also said that though China trails behind the U.S. in terms of comprehensive technology, but that it is catching up with the U.S. through fully utilizing mature Russian technology.
During the Planetary Congress, China showed its facilities for manned space flight to the astronauts gathered from across the world. Noguchi said he thought the infrastructure looked very similar to those he had previously seen in Russia.
The U.S. operates a multi-layered system for its manned space mission program, while Russia has restricted its specialization to the Soyuz spacecraft. Noguchi also said that China's operation of the Shenzhou spaceship is similar to how Russia operates its spacecraft and that its level of organizational skill, rocket technology and medical technology for manned space travel are the highest in Asia.
Noguchi became the first Asian to head the Association of Space Explorers, the Planetary Congress organizer, on Sept. 16. He said that he wishes to welcome Chinese astronauts, who have stayed away from international exchange.