China’s cosmic ambitions as seen from the skies

Here’s a scrutiny of satellite imagery that sheds light on China’s expansive space programme that has progressed steadily over the last two decades.

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-5 rocket is seen at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China’s Hainan Province, Friday, July 17, 2020. (Photo: AP)

Humans are unleashing Martian missions from the pandemic-ravaged Earth.

The UAE blasted off the Arab world’s first probe to the Red Planet from Japan’s Tanegashima spaceport on Monday. China is next in line to send its three-in-one spacecraft to Mars followed by the United States.

The UAE’s Hope mission is a research satellite. It will not land on Mars but will orbit it.

But the upcoming Chinese and American ventures are more daring — and competitive.

Japan UAE Mars mission. (Photo: AP)

China’s Tianwen 1 — meaning “quest for heavenly truth” — is slated for liftoff between the July 22-July 27 launch window.

Tianwen 1 consists of a satellite, a lander and rover that will probe the planet’s surface.

NASA’s Perseverance surface rover is expected to take off early August depending on conditions.


China’s first mission to Mars has rolled out.

On July 17, the launch vehicle was wheeled out to the launch pad at Hainan’s Wenchang Space Launch Centre.

Propellant fuel-filling process is underway per the latest reports.

(Photo: AP)

The mission will lift off on the Chinese-built CZ-5B or Long March -5B rocket during the launch window. The lander is expected to reach Mars in February 2021.

Remember, the United States and the former Soviet Union are the only two countries to land a spacecraft on Mars. India and the European Space Agency have successfully sent their missions to the planet’s orbit.

Scrutiny of satellite imagery sheds light on China’s expansive space programme that has progressed steadily over the last two decades.


The location of Hainan, an island province of China and the country’s southernmost point, was chosen for the Wenchang Space Launch Centre because it’s closer to the equator, providing adequate boost to rockets because of Earth’s rotational force.

The island also provides access to ships like Yuan Wang 21 and 22 to transport bulky space equipment from the manufacturing area of Tianjin.

The launches, which are generally southward, enable the debris to fall into the ocean with minimum risk to humans on the land.

The Wenchang centre has two unique space-launch complexes along with other support facilities built over seven years.

The CZ-5/LM-5 launch complex, which is meant for heavier loads, has a vehicle-assembly building to the north and a launchpad roughly 2,800m to its south.

Both are connected with 20m-wide rails for transportation of fully assembled rockets.

The CZ-7/LM-7 complex also has similar facilities providing support for lighter loads.

Both launch pads have similar type of umbilical towers with underground flame trenches. The pads are protected by four lightening conductors each.

The LOX/kerosene and LOX/LH2 propellant tanks service the pads for cleaner rocket fuel.


The CNSA, or the China National Space Administration, showcased a new drop-test experiment to diplomats of 19 countries on November 19, 2019.

The drop-test facility at Huailai in Hebei province is barely 70km north-west of Beijing.


Six 140m-tall steel trussed pylons provided a hexagonal stand for the lander to be lifted to a height of 130m for the drop test.

Another trussed pylon rises up to 200m to house an elevator-based monitoring platform.

At the base of each pylon, a small building consisting of servomechanism helps in the lift and drop of the lander.


The China Astronaut Research and Training Centre has built a space station for Chinese astronauts to simulate Mars environment.

The $2.2-billion facility named Mars Base No 1 was opened to school students in April 2019.

It is located 300km north of Lanzhou and 15km south of Jinchang.

The base has nine separate compartments connected to central control with covered corridors. A separate garage for Martian rovers and a communication node is also created.

The area to its south resembles Martian landscape with craters and possible huts to be used by Taikonauts (the Chinese astronauts) in the event of a manned mission to the Red Planet.


The CNSA plans to monitor this Mars mission, a symbol of China’s space prowess, through three major earth stations.

Two of them are located in China. The Jiamusi deep space-monitoring station, 67m in diameter, has the largest space parabolic dish antenna amongst the three.

The Kashgar facility is under renovation, which is likely to have four 30m dishes. This facility also has a large array of smaller antennae to monitor other space objects that might affect the mission adversely.

The third facility is located near Neuquén city in Argentina. This one has a 37m parabolic antenna for deep-space explorations and monitoring.

The launch is also being monitored by the new yuan Wang-6 space event ship, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

(Col Vinayak Bhat (Retired) is a consultant for India Today. A satellite imagery analyst, he served in the Indian Army for over 33 years.)

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