Of Robots and Space Station
While China’s manned space program has been getting a lot of attention, the country is also becoming a superpower in space exploration and science. In 2016, during its parliamentary sessions, China announced its space telescope program, which will advance China into capabilities only previously held by programs like the U.S. Hubble space telescope.
Zhang Yulin, a Deputy to the National People’s Congress and former Chairman of aerospace contractor CASC, noted that the Chinese space telescope would have a 2+meter diameter lens with a field of view 300 times that of the Hubble Space telescope, while maintaining the same level of image resolution. With such a wide field of view, the space telescope could survey 40 percent of the cosmos in ten years. Zhou Jianping, the head of China’s manned space program, noted that such a wide field-of-view would create a higher fidelity image to search for dark matter, dark energy, and exoplanets. Even more notable than the capabilities, however, may be the plan for where to locate the telescope.
Zhang said that the Chinese space telescope would orbit close to a Chinese space station, likely the Tiangong 3, so that Chinese taikonauts would quickly service any problems, compared to the 3.5 year wait for NASA to correct the Hubble Telescope’s mirror problems. The Tiangong 3’s two 15-meter-long robotic arms would be very helpful in servicing the space telescope. Using a space station as a permanent support base for a satellite has not yet been tried before; neither Skylab, Mir, nor the ISS had any large satellites close by. To outfit the Tiangong 3 for such a mission, China would need to stockpile supplies of tools and spares to provide for prompt servicing of a space telescope, though new technology such as monitoring nanosatellites could make telescope repairs easier. As China masters this space operational concept, the experience gained could provide a boost to future space projects, such as asteroid mining and the in orbit assembly of manned missions to Mars.
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