China seems emboldened to go where no man has gone before, planning to piece together a mile-long spaceship akin to Star Trek's Starship Enterprise.
This immense spacecraft is one of the projects Chinese researchers are being invited to look into, as the country ramps up space exploration efforts--which include long-haul crewed missions, the South China Morning Post reported.
China Spaceship Planned for Long-Term Missions, Exploring Mysteries of the Universe
According to South China Morning Post, China's National Natural Science Foundation is gathering scientists for a five-year initiative to possibly build and launch an "ultra-large spacecraft spanning kilometers." The spacecraft, the project outline read, is a "major strategic aerospace equipment" for future space missions, such as staying in "long-term orbit" and exploring the "mysteries of the universe." The National Natural Science Foundation is a research funding agency under China's Ministry of Science and Technology.
This outline is among others released by the foundation's mathematical and physical sciences department, which is set to fund five projects at 15 million yuan ($2.3 million) each.
This modular spacecraft would be launched repeatedly and bulid in space, as it would be too massive and heavy for a single launch. Researchers tapped for the project will study new lightweight design methods to minimize and optimize the weight of the spacecraft to lessen the number of launches and cut construction costs. Researchers also need to guarantee the structures' controllability to reduce altitude drift, vibration, and deformation during the spacecraft's assembly.
Former NASA chief technologist Mason Peck told Space.com that China's idea of a kilometer-wide spacecraft is "feasible" but problems in bringing this into reality would largely fall on questions of engineering rather than basic science. These problems are "not as insurmountable impediments, but rather problems of scale," Peck said.
China Spacecraft's Biggest Stumbling Block: Immense Cost
Peck noted the biggest impediment would be the cost of building the spacecraft due to the many expensive launches of modules and other materials into space. The 361-feet (110 meter) wide International Space Station cost around $100 billion to piece together, and for a spacecraft that would be ten times larger, a national space budget could certainly be drained.
Peck also emphasized the difficulty of constructing the massive spacecraft amid the many forces counteracting in space.
For University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign aerospace engineer professor Michael Lembeck, the idea of a real Starship Enterprise is "fantastical, not feasible." He told Space.com that the idea would be fun to consider but "not very realistic" for current technology.
China has made substantial investments into its space program, having succeeded in placing a working exploration rover in Mars last May, the second country after the U.S. to achieve the feat. It also landed its first spacecraft on the far side of the Moon.
It also started work on its own space station, Tiangong, last April, with the first modules launched into orbit via its Long March 5 heavy rocket. This 22-ton module will comprise Tiangong's core structure that will house astronauts for long periods. The Tiangong is expected to be completed next year, with a mass of 100 tons, which makes it about a quarter of the size of the International Space Station.