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Space program advances in heavens and on Earth

Updated: 10 20 , 2016 14:26
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Space program advances in heavens and on Earth

Clockwise from upper left: Scientists fix their gaze on monitors at Beijing Aerospace Control Center as ShenzhouXI prepares to dock with the Tiangong II space lab on Wednesday. The two spacecraft dock, in this artist's rendering. Chen Dong floats in the space lab. Jing Haipeng, left, and Chen greet viewers shortly after entering the space lab. [Photo/Xinhua]

As two Chinese astronauts peered into the heavens from the Tiangong II space lab they docked with early Wednesday, Chinese rocket scientists on the ground said they are looking into ways to shape the future of the nation's space market. When the astronauts left their "divine vessel", Shen-zhou XI, and entered the newest high-tech "heavenly palace" floating above Earth early on Wednesday, it was one for the history books.

The docking with the Tiangong II space lab wasn't the first such maneuver in the Chinese space program.

But it was highly significant, with more experiments planned, a space stay twice as long as earlier missions and a space lab that's a significant step toward the nation's goal of having a permanent space station orbiting in just a few years.

Once the two vehicles docked, mission commander Jing Haipeng, 49, and Chen Dong, 37, extended greetings to all of the Chinese people and checked the status of the Shenzhou XI-Tiangong II combination to ensure equal pressurization.

The two took off their spacesuits to change into blue jumpsuits.

They will remain within the space lab for 30 days, making the longest space stay by Chinese astronauts. They will verify the life-support capability of the spacecraft-space lab combination and conduct scientific research and engineering experiments.

Jing and Chen will sprout seeds and study their growth in space. They also will take part in an experiment in which a futuristic device will try to translate their brain impulses into words to communicate with the ground control and to operate instruments in the spacecraft.

Shenzhou XI blasted off atop a Long March 2F rocket on Monday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, about one month after the launch of Tiangong II in mid-September. This is China's sixth manned spaceflight and is expected to pave the way for the permanent space station, construction of which is scheduled to start in 2018, with a launch planned around 2022.

However, in the eyes of rocket scientists at the China Academy Launch Vehicle Technology, the country's largest developer of ballistic missiles and carrier rockets, more is needed than State programs alone for the future growth of China's space sector.

CALT is a subordinate of the larger China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, the State-owned main contractor for the Chinese space program.

Hao Zhaoping, vice-president of CALT, said the academy will strive to tap the commercial launch market because commercial space activities have begun to represent the development trend of the industry.

"We will continue to push forward with the internationalization and commercialization of the academy's space sector through more participation in the international space market and introduction of private capital," Hao said. "The government also encourages industry players to develop commercial satellites and their applications, commercial launch services and space tourism."

Hao spoke Wednesday at a ceremony marking the establishment of ChinaRocket Co Ltd, a company founded by the academy to provide launch services to domestic and overseas clients.

"The new company will start business by designing and using some light-lift rockets to fulfill commercial contracts and then open the development of suborbital, reusable spacecraft for space tourism," Hao said, adding the firm will also go public.

Han Qingping, president of ChinaRocket, announced that his company aims at carrying out at least 50 launches per year and maintaining a cost 30 percent lower than its competitors in the market. He did not elaborate on the agenda to achieve these goals.

In the past, the idea of commercializing the space industry was deemed by some experts in China as being unrealistic or even unreasonable. Opinions started to change over the past two years along with the rise of private space enterprises in the United Statessuch as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.

In February, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, a State-owned defense technology giant, set up the Expace Technology Co Ltd to put its Kuaizhou-series solid-fueled rockets on the market.

Expace Technology will have an annual production capacity of 50 carrier rockets and 140 commercial satellites by 2020, company executives said.

China has launched 54 carrier rockets to lift satellites for foreign clients.

Hu Shengyun, a senior rocket engineer at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, estimates that by 2020, the market value of commercial space activities in China will reach 30 billion yuan ($4.6 billion) annually.

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