Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Most Important Milestone from China’s Impressive Week of Exploration

From Wired:  The Most Important Milestone from China’s Impressive Week of Exploration

The seafloor from the Alvin submersible; the Earth from an Apollo mission (Image credits: Jeffrey Marlow; NASA)
A very unusual phone call took place over the weekend, and it happened in Chinese.  Both callers were in cramped metal tins with two other people, but the views from their dinner plate-sized windows could not have been more different.  One man looked out to see 7,000 meters of Pacific Ocean water above his submarine; the other saw the arc of the Earth below his space ship and the vast darkness of space in all other directions.
This clever bit of PR underscores an obvious point: it’s been a good week for China’s sea and space exploration programs, as well as for superlative-hunting historians.  It began on June 16th, when the Shenzhou 9 launched China’s first female taikonaut – Liu Yang – as a member of the three-person crew.  This was the country’s fourth manned mission, and it featured a marquee headlining event: a docking between a manned capsule and the incipient Chinese space station.  It was a unique challenge of hardware, software, and human skill, a technical hurdle that would justify more complicated mission architectures in the future.
And so, on June 18th, Shenzhou 9 activated its automatic control system and successfully linked up with the Tiangong 1 module.  A couple of days ago, they backed up and did it again – this time manually, just to show that they could, and to prove to themselves that human skills represent sufficient back-up should the automatic pilot fail.  Shenzhou 9’s milestones underscore the characterization of China’s manned spaceflight program as a deliberate, focused, incremental effort to be a long-term player in exploratory ventures.  A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine even warns that China may be positioning itself to claim the Moon.

Meanwhile, in the South Pacific, the Jiaolong submersible dove to a water depth of 7,020 meters in the Mariana Trench, according to China Daily.  The three crew members tested the scientific instruments, snapping photographs, capturing video, and collecting samples during the dive, which was the fourth of six planned tests during the current expedition.
To be clear, both of these feats have been accomplished before: orbital maneuvers have been taking place for decades, and two submarines have made it to the ocean’s deepest point.  Even the rate of China’s advancement is somewhat average as space-faring developments go: it’s been nearly nine years since Yang Liwei ushered in the era of Chinese manned spaceflight – a time span that saw NASA go from Alan Shepard to Neil Armstrong in the 1960s.  The lack of haste suggests that China’s space program is more than a stunt to ruffle foreign policy feathers or bolster national pride (though there’s likely an element of that in the long game too.)
In many ways, then, the most important aspect to emerge from China’s week of milestones is this seemingly minor distinction: Jiaolong has now become the deepest-diving scientific submersible, opening up 99.8% of the seafloor to scientific inquiry.  Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard – who were there first to kick up the silt at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960 – saw a few fish, the extent of their scientific program.  James Cameron’s sub was poised to pick up some souvenirs during its voyage a few months ago, but technical difficulties curtailed the sample collection effort.
A instrument-laden sub is a different beast altogether  Xinhua news agency’s photos of the sub suggest that it’s a one-armed beast (in contrast to Alvin‘s two arms) with a sophisticated array of cameras, lights, sample platforms, and possibly a vacuum that could be used to slurp up seafloor sediment.
The pursuit of high quality science in the deepest ocean trenches is a subtle but important mental shift, marking the move from trench-diving as exploratory novelty to trench-diving as research.  It’s an intellectual grasping of a harsh, distant environment, much in the way that other extreme environments – think Antarctica – have transitioned from no-man’s land to scientific outpost.  Just how the Chinese will use their new capability remains to be seen (many observers note the country’s interest in deep sea mineral resources), but the hardware itself is an important addition to the world’s scientific arsenal.

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