The annual session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in early February afforded a quick glance at the progress of space projects around the world.
Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu, vice-chairman of the International Relations Committee of the European Space Agency, former president of the Association of Space Explorers (the professional association of astronauts including over 400 astronauts from 36 countries), and former chair of UN COPUOS, with his experience in the UN COPUOS since 1992, called attention upon progress around the world, as new countries are getting involved in space projects, and there is increased cooperation in multi-national efforts. He also stressed the dual civilian-military nature these projects, and their potential benefits.
“[The European Space Agency] is taking steps forward with its space programs… One major achievement of ESA is the COPERNICUS program to capture high-resolution images with Sentinel satellites, which keep on sending increasingly better, amazing imagery. Copernicus is a complex European system for monitoring the Earth, collecting data from multiple sources: earth observation satellites and in situ sensors such as ground stations, airborne and seaborne sensors that cover six areas: land, marine, atmosphere, climate change, emergency management, as well as security and defense, including cross-border migration. In defense, not only the European Defence Agency can enjoy these European civilian and military programs, but also other partners that can buy these services.”
During the proceedings, Holger Krag, Head of ESA’s Space Debris Office ESA/ESOC, spoke about ESA launches and mitigation efforts in 2016, including the Sentinel-3A launched on February 16, 2016 from Plesetsk (Rokot rocket) to monitor ocean and land temperature and color; Exomars, launched on March 14, 2016 from Baikonour (Proton rocket) into Mars orbit to trace gases in the Martian atmosphere; Sentinel-1B, launched on April 25, 2016 from CSG/Kourou (Soyuz rocket) to monitor land and sea; Galileo 13,14,15,16,17,18 satellites, launched on (13, 14) May 24, (15 – 18) Nov. 17.
Walter Naumann of the Max Planck Institute, Germany, presented the ICARUS Initiative, a new space system for global wildlife observation and protection, aimed at extending the satellite-based Earth observation to the fauna on Earth, especially to small animals.
China has seen swift advancement in its space programs. The country has set records with its independent manned flight capability: the LM-2F of China and Soyuz of Russia became the only two launch vehicles that can conduct manned space missions, and China’s intensive launch capabilities – 18 launches per year – equaled NASA’s count in 2016.
Yu Qi, Deputy Director-General of the Department of System Engineering in China’s National Space Administration (CNSA), presented the latest Chinese Space achievements, including: long March vehicles that greatly enhance China’s capabilities and access to space; Beidou navigation and positioning system and high-resolution earth observation systems; breakthroughs in spacecraft rendezvous and docking as well as astronauts’ mid-term stay in orbit and long-term ground mission support; the Lunar exploration project’s successful reentry and return flight test; and the first launch at the Wenchang launch site.
Among China’s major aims over the next five years: to develop and launch non-toxic and pollution-free medium-lift launch vehicles; research key technologies for heavy-lift launch vehicles and low-cost launch vehicles; to launch the Tianzhou-1 cargo spacecraft to dock with the Tiangong-2 space laboratory; to start assembly and operation of the space station; to improve the integrated capacities and functions of space launch sites to meet various needs; to implement new space science satellite programs; to launch a hard X-ray modulation telescope; and to improve the standardization system for space debris, near-earth objects, and space climate.
China is also looking at enhancing its space cooperation. Since 2011, China has signed 43 space cooperation agreements or memoranda of understanding with 29 countries, space agencies, and international organizations. Among its key areas for future cooperation: construction of the Belt and Road Initiative space information department, launching BRICS remote-sensing satellite constellation, and improving exploration and technical cooperation concerning the Moon and Mars. China has already invited all space-faring countries to work on its space station, which will become operation in 2022.
Liu Bing, a technician with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) presented China’s Space Transportation System, represented by Long March (LM) launch vehicles, and Yuanzheng (meaning ‘expedition’) series upper stages. Four generations, with 17 types of launch vehicles, have been designed and manufactured so far, capable of sending various payloads into low, medium, and high orbits. Long March launch vehicles have conducted 244 flights with a success rate of 96% through December 2016. On November 3, Long March 5 LV (LM-5) accomplished its first flight, and delivered a 14-ton experimental payloads into geostationary transfer orbit. The LM-5 can also carry 25 tons into low earth orbit (LEO), which makes it the biggest LV in China. China has four space launch sites, forming a network covering both coastal and inland areas, high and low altitudes, which provides various trajectories to satisfy manned spaceships, space laboratory modules, deep space probes and all kinds of satellites.
China invited other space-faring countries to cooperate on “space ride” – China’s LM launch vehicles have been launched over 200 times, which means rich piggyback payload launch chances for developing and emerging space countries. There’s also “space shuttle bus” as the launch mode of LM launch vehicles with Yuanzheng upper stages, which are said to work like a space shuttle bus.
Other nations also boasted of significant evolution in their space programs.
Japan’s recent developments in space was presented by Masazumi Miyake, director of the International Relations and Research Department in the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Among the many milestones: an H3 launch planned for 2020; a Hayabusa-2 launch to reach target asteroid “Ryugu” in 2018 and return to Earth in 2020; a small lunar-lander (SLIM), which boasts autonomous obstacle detection, robust pin-point guidance, landing shock absorber, and high-performance propulsion – a precursor of full-scale lunar or planetary missions; and BepiColombo –a joint mission between ESA and JAXA, planned to reach Mercury in 2024. After 2020, MMX, a sample return mission to the two moons of Mars, and SPICA, a joint astrophysics mission with Europe, are JAXA’s top-priority missions, although they’re still in the concept phase.
Clezio Marcos De Nardin of the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE) made a presentation on ‘Opportunities in Science and Engineering with Space Applications at INPE,’ which included various Earth observation systems such as remote sensing research on geology, water resources, oceanography, ecosystems and territorial management and monitoring, daily weather forecast, and climate studies.
Space debris was the focus of experts from various countries.
Christian Cazaux of the French Centre Bational D’études Spatiales (CNES), submitted an overview on 2016 space debris activities in France, among which there was an analysis of the results of the past (2000 to 2015) in low Earth orbit for satellites post mission disposal, as well as fragmentations information, and CNES operational services called CAESAR (Conjunction Analysis and Evaluation, Assessment and Recommendations), with an analysis of all conjunction data messages available.
Jer-Chyi Liou, Chief Scientist from the Orbital Debris Program Office at Johnson Space Center, NASA, stressed that the material mass in Earth orbit continued to increase and exceeded 7,400 metric tons in 2016; the low Earth orbit, below 2,000 km altitude, has the highest concentration of the cataloged objects and mass distribution and is dominated by rocket bodies and spacecrafts.
Fernand Alby from IAASS (International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety) examined the impact of newcomers on space debris risk, such as increased collision risk to other users of space, more avoidance maneuvers, operational cost, lifetime reduction, and significant impact on the long term evolution of orbital population and possible instability.
Sam Harbison, consultant to the UK Space Agency, provided some updates on the safety recommendations for nuclear power source applications in space.
Koji Nakaitani, assistant director of the Japanese National Space Policy Secretariat, presented an overview of the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, a 4-satellite constellation that will be established and become operational in 2018.
Aleksei Belotserkovsky of the National Academy of Sciences in Belarus gave an account of Belarus’ satellite system of precise positioning, including 98 continuous operation reference stations (CORSs) that provide 100% coverage of the territory.
Omran Sharaf from the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center in the UEA informed about the progress of the Arab World’s first mission to explore Mars, with the probe symbolically called Amal (Hope), that will include high technology equipment: EMUS, a far ultraviolet imaging spectrograph that will characterize the escape of hydrogen and oxygen from Mars and the state of the Mars thermosphere; EMIRS – the 5th generation ASU built FTIR spectrometer with OTES.
The first two weeks of February at the 54th session of the Scientific and Technical Sub-Committee of COPUOS in Vienna have definitely provided a comprehensive picture of the latest achievements in the most inspiring and challenging of areas – space.