2018 ended with not so good ending, the U.S. government was partially shut-down due to a stalemate between Congress and the White House over funding for a wall along the southern border for stopping illegal immigrants and drug and human trafficking. The U.S.-China trade war although temporarily halted for 90 days but its uncertainty and the arresting of a Chinese high-tech company executive by Canada at the request of the U.S. have caused stock markets in the U.S. and worldwide tumbling. The concern of the Chinese economy degrading as well as its impact on the U.S. and world economy is casting a cloud over financial markets worrying recession.
Coming 2019 New Year, though the above problems are still hanging, but a string of exciting news happening in the first week of the New Year is uplifting. This is the news report of a space exploration. First, on the New Year’s Day, the NASA asteroid-sampling probe (OSIRIS-REx, Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) was reported circling its space-rock target, 1640 foot wide near-Earth asteroid Bennu at 2:43 P.M (EST) on Dec. 31, setting a new record for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft at a smallest orbit, one mile above the rock. Then it followed by executing the orbit-insertion maneuver perfectly, a project planned for years. Since OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu since Dec. 3, a detailed physical measurement and mapping had begun before the insertion signaling that maneuvering around a small body with no gravity is a very challenging task.
The OSIRIS-REx mission ($800 million) was launched in September 2016. Its main goal is to help researchers better understand the solar system's early days, and to shed light on the role that carbon-rich asteroids such as Bennu may have played in helping life get started on Earth by delivering water and organic molecules. Much of this information will come from analyses of Bennu material here on Earth with planned harvesting a sizeable sample of asteroid dirt and gravel in mid-2020 parachuting back in the Utah desert in September 2023. The mission should increase scientists' understanding of the resource potential of Bennu-like asteroids and help fine-tune the trajectories researchers had drawn up for potentially dangerous space rocks. This space program is obviously a significant research hopefully contributing to mankind’s knowledge and potential use of space resources.
On Jan. 1, 2019, a NASA spacecraft, New Horizon, was reported to have flown by, in the first hour of 2019, over a space object (named Ultima Thule located in an icy Kuiper Belt) farther than any spacecraft has done before, about four billion miles from Earth (one billion miles from Pluto). The scientists cheered upon receiving the signal, which took so long to reach them. The full scope of observations made by New Horizons will take nearly two years to beam back to Earth. The spacecraft provided the first close-up images of Pluto about 3 1/2 years ago when it traveled past the dwarf planet. The objects in this region so far from the Sun are believed to be frozen in time, relics left over from the formation of the solar system. The space objects like Ultima are believed to be the building blocks of planets, thus its study can lead to the understanding of the formation of planets. The surface features of this small world could provide a window to see the composition of the subsurface of Ultima. By counting the number and impactors that have hit Ultima, the number of small objects in the outer solar system may be estimated.
On January 3rd, 2019, another exciting space news brought cheers all over the world as photos of Chang’e 4 lander and rover Yutu2 and their successful soft landing (Jan. 2nd) on the far side of the Moon were reported on televisions and newspapers. China was a late comer in space exploration; she was excluded from the space club by the West. This turned out to be a blessing, since it motivated many Chinese scientists and engineers to dedicate all their brains, energies and lives to space research. Besides China’s rapid advances in transport and satellite technologies, China has launched the Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 orbiters in 2007 and 2010, respectively, and pulled off a near-side Moon landing with the Chang’e 3 mission in December 2013. Chang'e 4 was originally designed as a backup to Chang'e 3, so they share hardware similarity. China has also launched an eight day around the moon return capsule mission in October 2014, a mission known as Chang'e 5T1. as a test run for the Chang'e 5 sample-return effort, likely to be launched this year. China also has ambitions for crewed lunar missions, but its human-spaceflight program is focused more on Earth orbit in the short term such as launching a space station up and running by her own effort in the early 2020s.
On Jan. 3rd, the rover rolled onto the gray dirt floor of the 115-mile-wide (186 kilometers) Von Kármán Crater, creeping down twin ramps from a previous position atop the stationary lander. Yutu 2, named after a rabbit in the Chinese legendary mythology, and its lander companion will conduct the first in-depth science investigations on the far side of the Moon. The pair carries four science instruments to characterize the surface and near subsurface of the Von Kármán crater which lies within an even larger impact feature, the 1,550-mile-wide (2,500 km) South Pole-Aitken Basin. In addition, the lander also carries a biological experiment: a small tin containing silkworm eggs and the seeds of several plant species, including potatoes. Mission team members aim to study how these organisms may grow and develop in the low-gravity lunar environment.
The lander features the Landing Camera, the Terrain Camera, the Low Frequency Spectrometer, and the Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry (provided by Germany). The rover has the Panoramic Camera, the Lunar Penetrating Radar, the Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer, and the Advanced Small Analyzer for Neutrals (contributed by Sweden). The lander and Yutu 2 cannot beam their data home to Earth directly from the far side of the Moon which was the reason it avoided human exploration thus far. So in May, 2018, China had launched a relay satellite called Queqiao (a name also taken from the legendary mythology), stationed at a gravitationally stable point beyond the Moon. From its vantage point, Queqiao can keep Yutu 2, the lander and Earth all in sight at the same time. Chang'e 4 is a robotic lunar exploration. The data flow through Queqiao will likely be extensive. China's Chang'e 4 team should be congratulated for the successful landing on the far side of the Moon, a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment.
The above NASA space explorations are aiming at finding information about how the solar universe had begun and planets had been developed. China’s lunar observations on the Moon’s far side are aiming at finding why the lunar near and far sides are so different. The experimentations to be performed there will yield valuable information about how plants such as silkworms and potatoes may ever grow on the Moon. It is obvious that collaboration and sharing information between the U.S. and China will yield more progress on space science and applications. For example, Chengdu City in China is seriously exploring the possibility of launching a geostationary satellite with a mirror array to reflect solar light to the city in the night time to eliminate all city street lights. Such an idea would never arise if there were no satellite and space technology. Let’s hope the New Year’s exciting news will steer the two great nations and other partners to work together for the common good of mankind, rather than pursuing mutually damaging competition such as trade wars and technology sanctions.
Ifay Chang. Ph.D. Producer/Host, Community Education - Scrammble Game Show, Weekly TV Columnist, www.us-chinaforum.org . Trustee, Somers Central School District.