China plans more than 20 space launches in 2016
China has announced it has a busy launch manifest planned for 2016, with more than 20 missions scheduled to take to the skies this year. The country that conducted 19 successful launches in 2015 has also stated its intentions to launch its Tiangong 2 space laboratory and a manned spacecraft Shenzhou 11, among other military and commercial orbital missions.
The first Chinese launch this year is slated be carried out on Jan. 15, when a Long March 3B rocket is slated to lift the Belintersat 1 communications satellite to orbit for Belarus. The flight should take place from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, located in Sichuan Province. The spacecraft was built by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and is China’s first communications satellite exported to Europe.
Then, on April 30, the country plans to deliver two Argentinian Earth-observing satellites, named ÑuSat-1 and ÑuSat-2, for the Aleph-1 constellation. A Long March 4B booster will be employed for this mission slated to be launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi Province.
At present, these are the only two launch dates that were disclosed so far by the Chinese media. Other launches are targeted for certain months, but their exact dates have yet to be determined. Several missions are still unassigned to any specific period of the year.
The most important and apparently attention-grabbing Chinese orbital mission in 2016 will be sending a trio of taikonauts into space. The crew will fly aboard their Shenzhou 11 spacecraft, expected to be launched by a Long March 2F – a carrier rocket designed for crewed missions.
The launch site for the mission will be the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, located in Gansu Province. It should take place sometime in the second half of the year. China hasn’t yet released any information about the crew for this flight.
Upon reaching orbit, the Shenzhou 11 will dock with the Tiangong 2 space laboratory which should have been launched in the first half of 2016 (also by the Long March 2F booster and from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre). Along with Tiangong 2, a small Banxing-2 satellite, probably a technology demonstrator, will piggyback on the mission.
This year should also see maiden flights of the next-generation Long March 5 and Long March 7 rockets. The largest Long March 5 rocket (CZ-504) is a 203.4-foot (62-meter) tall heavy-lift launch vehicle designed to be able to deliver up to 25 metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbit (LEO) and up to 14 metric tons to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). Weighing 810 metric tons, it is described as being the heaviest and most technologically challenging member of the Long March rocket family. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology is carrying out final tests of this booster to prepare it for its first flight scheduled for September.
The 174.2 feet (53 meters) tall Long March 7 is a medium-heavy launch vehicle with a mass of 594 metric tons. It will be capable of launching nearly 13.5 metric tons to LEO and about 5.5 metric tons into a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). Although, this booster is designed to deliver satellites into space, its structure is based on the Long March 2F rocket employed for crewed missions. The date of the first Long March 7 flight hasn’t been disclosed yet.
China is also planning to launch two satellites for its homegrown Beidou Navigation Satellite System and three Gaofen spacecraft for its High-Resolution Earth Observation System this year. One of the Beidou launches is planned for February. Other dates have yet to be announced.
Among other notable Chinese missions to be conducted in 2016 are the Chinese Carbon Dioxide Observation Satellite Mission, or TanSa, and Quantum Science Satellite (QSS). These two scientific satellites will probably be launched in July.
2016 could also see the launch of China’s Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT). It is an X-ray space observatory designed to explore the fundamental physics that took place in the very early universe or in the proximity of black holes.
This busy launch schedule could include several missions for the Chinese army. However, due to their military nature, no information is currently available about these flights.
With the launches of Shenzhou and Tiangong, this year could be a stepping stone for China toward establishing its own space station. The launch of the core module of this station is planned for 2018 to test related technologies and to research engineering issues. The station is expected to be fully operational around 2022.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.