The next five years of China in space could be even busier than the previous five. The country has released a white paper outlining plans and priorities for spaceflight and exploration over the next 5 years. From returning moon samples to Earth to starting assembling a space station, China has made a lot of progress lately at the last frontier, and the document makes it clear that the country plans to build on those gains.
"In the next five years, China will integrate space science, technology and applications, following a new development philosophy, creating a new development model, and meeting the requirements of high-quality development," the white paper titled "China Space Research" says. Agenda: outlook for 2021.”
“This will mark the beginning of a new path [to become] a space power,” the authors of the document write. "The space industry will contribute more to the growth of China as a whole, to the achievement of global consensus and common efforts regarding the exploration and use of outer space, and to the progress of mankind."
China launched 207 space missions between 2016 and December 2021, the white paper notes. This is an impressive figure, but the nation is unhappy with its current number of launch vehicles.
"In the next five years, China will continue to increase the capacity and performance of its space transportation system and advance faster in the modernization of launch vehicles," the document says. “This will further expand the family of launch vehicles, launch next-generation manned launch vehicles and high-thrust solid-fuel launch vehicles into space, and accelerate the R&D [research and development] of heavy-lift launch vehicles.”
China launched Tianhe, the core module of its new space station, in April 2021 and shortly thereafter sent two missions with three astronauts to the orbiting laboratory, one in June and the other in October. The country plans to complete construction of the station this year, which will entail the launch of two other modules known as Mengtian and Wentian.
In addition, China is building the Xuntian Space Telescope, which will launch into the same orbit as the space station and periodically dock with it.
The new document states that Xuntian will be launched within the next five years. And the space station will train a lot during this time; the astronauts will live there on "long-term missions" doing various research and maintenance.
China also intends to go to the Moon in the relatively near future, a bold goal that will get some serious attention over the next five years. Over the next five years, China will "continue research and development on the Moon landing plan, develop a new generation of manned spacecraft, and explore key technologies to lay the foundation for the exploration and development of the circumlunar space," the white paper said.
In January 2019, China's Chang'e-4 robotic mission became the first ever to make a soft landing on the far side of the moon. In December 2020, Chang'e 5 brought pristine lunar samples back to Earth for the first time since the 1970s. And in February 2021, the first Chinese interplanetary mission Tianwen 1 entered orbit around Mars. In May of the same year, the rover called Zhurong separated from the Tianwen-1 orbiter and successfully landed on the Red Planet.