Thursday, December 08, 2011

To Boldly Go ...

Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, 47, was carried out of his Russian-made Soyuz space capsule on the plains of Kazakhstan last week with a big grin on his face. After spending five and a half weightless months at the International Space Station without feeling the pull of gravity, he was, understandably a little unsteady on his feet after landing.

Furukawa got his few hours of local fame, but the notion of Japanese astronauts – and other Asians for that matter – piggybacking on American or Russian space vehicles is hardly big news any more. Nevertheless, Asians are doing more than begging rides. They are making many often unheralded strides in developing independent space programs of their own.

The two Asian nations with their own space programs are, of course, the two biggest and richest among them, China and Japan. But both countries have gone their own different ways, China focused overwhelmingly on manned space travel, Japan going in mainly for unmanned probes to distant corners of the solar system, such as asteroids.

Only a few weeks before Furukawa returned to earth, the Chinese successfully docked two unmanned space craft about 200 miles above the Earth, an important step in China’s unofficial goal of establishing a space station by 2020 and eventually landing a man on the moon .

What the Chinese call the Shenzhou-8 space capsule docked with the Tiangon-1 module that had been launched from Earth a few weeks earlier. In the coming year, if all goes well, the Chinese plan to repeat the exercise with manned space craft, leading to the establishment of an orbiting space station about the time that International Space Station goes into retirement.

The Chinese have, in fact, now placed six taikongnauts into Earth orbit since Yang Liwei orbited the earth in 2003 on the Shenzhou-5, thus making China only the third country in the world to place a man in orbit  through its own indigenous program. Since then it has successfully launched three manned mission into Earth orbit, including one that involved  a extravehicular space walk.

China is following a path blazed 40 years ago by the U.S. and Russian space programs that culminated in the first Apollo moon flight in 1968. Yet it has relied entirely on its own aerospace engineering in the face of some restrictions Washington placed on scientific exchanges and exports of space-related technology in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident.

This success made through own engineering efforts hasn’t been lost on strategic planners in Washington, who were shocked when in 2007 Beijing successfully tested an anti-satellite missile which destroyed an aging orbiting Chinese weather satellite, proving a capability to render other country’s  satellites useless.
Japan has taken a different path into space from China eschewing manned flight in favor of deep-space probes. Their biggest accomplishment came in 2010 when the space probe Hayabusa landed in the wastes of Western Australia following a seven-year, 300 million km voyage to the asteroid Itokawa – and back.

It is not certain if even the Japanese, much less the rest of the non-scientific world, fully appreciated the what their space probe had accomplished It was, after all, the first space vehicle to voyage to another  world and return to earth since the Apollo moon flights of the 1970s.  It was also the deepest round-trip space voyage by any country.

Hayabusa’s main mission was to land on the asteroid, a peanut shaped world no bigger than downtown Hibiya Park in Tokyo (500 meters long and 200 wide), retrieve some of the asteroid rocks and return them to earth to be examined by scientists seeking clues to the origin of the solar system. Itokawa was born more than 6 billion year ago, making it older than the Earth.

Unfortunately, the mechanism for gathering asteroid rocks failed in this mission, although the landing and lift off stirred up enough asteroid dust to give the scientists a t the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and other laboratories something to study.

Technicians had to overcome numerous other set-backs during the long voyage of Hayabusa. Three of the four ion thrusters stopped working during the trip, a fuel leak rendered the chemical engine inoperable two of the three attitude control antennas broke down and communication was lost for 50 days after the landing.

Despite this, JAXA is planning a Hayabusa-2 mission scheduled to lift off next May, assuming budgetary approval. This probe is aimed at an object simply known as 1999JU3. With a host of technologies that were not aboard the original space craft but developed to answer many of the problems the original probe experienced, scientists hope to gather much more material to examine when the probe returns to earth in 2018.

That of course assumes that the mission isn’t overshadowed by an American mission to the asteroid belt. The US NASA space agency us planning to send one in 2016, which is a strong indication that even though the Space Shuttles flew their last missions this year and were farmed out to museums, the U.S. too is still very much in the space game.

In November the Americans launched an enormous space probe to Mars carrying a vehicle as big as an SUV. It is specifically equipped and targeted to uncover any evidence of life on the red planet.  It would not be the first probe to land on Mars. Russia and the U.S. between them have sent 13 probes to Mars, about half of them successfully. The current “Curiosity” probe is the most sophisticated one yet.

But as the Martian score card indicates, not every space initiative meets with success. The U.S. has had its failures, and  just a few weeks ago a Russian probe aimed at one of Mar’s two planets failed to break out of the earth orbit.

 Japan too has had its share of misadventures. Last year Japan launched Akatsuki on a voyage to Venus specifically to study its turbulent climate to understand global warming better, but it failed to enter the plants orbit. 


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