China-US space race heats up as Chinese firm plans over 40 launches this year

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China’s main space contractor plans more than 40 launches this year, consolidating the country’s presence on a front that is becoming a source of rivalry with the United States.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) said on its social media account that it had arranged more than 40 space launches for 2022, and for six manned space missions, including with two Shenzhou spacecraft. China’s Tiangong space station is expected to be completed this year.

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The group will launch the first Long March 6A carrier rocket, featuring a liquid core with solid boosters.

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The mission for 2022 would be “very arduous” and the number of space launches continued to remain high, the company said.

“We need to fully complete various aerospace tasks, ensure the complete success of major flight test missions and accelerate the development of China as a space power,” CASC chairman Wu Yansheng was quoted as saying.

Other Chinese space companies revealed their plans for 2022. LandSpace plans to launch a new rocket, Zhuque-2, which has a payload capability of 4,000kg (8,800 pounds), to low Earth orbit, and i-Space will conduct the first launch of its Shian Quxian-2 rocket.

Zhongke Aerospace is preparing to conduct the first launch of its Lijian-1 solid rocket in the year’s first quarter. China Rocket will launch the first Jielong-3 solid-fuel rocket this year.

The rivalry between China and the US over space is intensifying. China had 55 space launches in 2021 – including 48 launches by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation – outnumbering America’s 51 launches. There were a total of 145 space launches around the world.

In 2020, CASC had a target of about 40 launches for the following year.

Some notable Chinese missions last year included the core module of the Tiangong space station and two crewed missions shuttling three astronauts each time to the space station.

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China has invested heavily in space programmes in recent years and it has made significant progress.

Before 2007, it had not achieved more than 10 launches in a year. But since then it has gathered momentum, carrying out 152 launches in the past five years – more than any other country.

In 2018 and 2019, China achieved the most launches in the world (38 and 32 respectively), surpassing the United States, the long-time leader in the field (34 and 21 respectively). The US reclaimed the lead in 2020, with 44 launches to China’s 39.

The rivalry has triggered concerns that space is becoming overcrowded. China complained to the United Nations last month that Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites and China’s Tiangong space station might have collided on two occasions if the Chinese space station had not manoeuvred to avoid contact.

Beijing has repeatedly demanded the US avoid similar incidents, and called on Washington to be a “responsible player”.

Space experts said there were no rules in space concerning who had “right of way” or what constituted a “safe” distance, and China and the US should communicate better to reduce the risk of accidents.

China is also strengthening cooperation with Russia over space exploration. The two nations are to sign a new five-year agreement on space cooperation this year. Ground-monitoring stations are expected to be placed in both China and Russia as they integrate their respective satellite networks, China’s BeiDou and Russia’s Glonass, Chinese media reported.

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