China will put into space five new satellites within about five years as part of the country's fast-expanding space science program, a national science chief said on Wednesday.
The five satellites, including a Sino-European joint mission known as SMILE, will focus on observation of solar activities and their impact on Earth's environment and space weather, analysis of water recycling and probing of black holes, according to Wu Ji, director of the National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
They should make major breakthroughs in these fields, Wu said.
Of the five satellites, SMILE, or "Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer," is set to blast off in 2021. The satellite is designed to study the effects of the sun on Earth's environment and space weather by creating images of the interactions between solar winds and Earth's magnetosphere with X-ray and ultraviolet technology.
MIT, the Magnetosphere-Ionosphere-Thermosphere Coupling Exploration, aims at investigating the origin of upflow ions and their acceleration mechanism and discovering the key mechanism for the magnetosphere, ionosphere and thermosphere coupling.
And WCOM, the Water Cycle Observation Mission, is a bid to better understand Earth's water cycle by simultaneous and fast measurement of key parameters such as soil moisture, ocean salinity and ocean surface evaporation.
The other two satellites are the Advanced Space-borne Solar Observatory (ASO-S) and the Einstein-Probe. The former will help scientists understand the causality among magnetic fields, flares and coronal mass ejections, while the latter is tasked with discovering quiescent black holes over all astrophysical mass ranges and other compact objects via high-energy transients.
The ASO-S is China's first solar exploration satellite, ending the nation's history of depending on foreign solar observation data.
Although the missions sound remote from ordinary people, Wu Ji insisted they are of imperative importance for space science and improving lives.
"All these projects were selected according to their scientific significance by judging committees led by scientists in an effort to give a vent for their innovation potential," Wu said.
Last week, the CAS announced China would launch the first experimental quantum communication satellite in July.
The new satellite is the third of four scientific satellites under a CAS space program, which has already seen the orbit of China's first Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) Satellite in December last year and the retrievable SJ-10 scientific research satellite in April. The DAMPE was designed to shine light on the invisible material which scientists say makes up most of the universe's mass, and the SJ-10 to aid scientists in studying microgravity and space life sciences.
Another powerful X-ray telescope to observe black holes, neutron stars and other phenomena is also scheduled to launch later this year.
Together, the four satellites and the new series of science probes announced by Wu could mark a new step forward in China's multi-billion-dollar space missions, a great source of national pride and a marker of China's global stature and technological expertise.
The country sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, becoming the third nation after Russia and the United States to achieve manned space travel independently. In 2008, astronauts aboard Shenzhou-7 made China's first space walk. There are also plans for a space station to be completed around 2020.
Up to this point, previous projects, including the manned missions and lunar probes, have tended to be application-oriented or task-based, and have not focused on expanding knowledge of space sciences, spurring reforms in cutting-edge technology and driving the development of important emerging industries, said Wu Ji.
China sends more than 20 practical satellites into the space every year but it was not until 2015 that it launched satellites for pure scientific research. This does not befit China's international status, Wu said.
Hopefully, the curtain of change might have just begun to roll up. China has been ambitious about becoming a leading power in science and technology (S&T) which are seen as the driving force for modern economic and social development.
At a national S&T conference that commenced on Monday, President Xi Jinping said China should establish itself as one of the most innovative countries by 2020 and a leading innovator by 2030, and become a leading global S&T power by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2049.
According to Wu, space science should serve as a source for S&T innovation.
He said aside from the five new satellites announced on Wednesday, the CAS is also preparing for future space exploration attempts in the next decade.
Scientists are mulling four new satellite projects, including the Solar Polar Orbit Telescope (SPORT), Search for Terrestrial Exo-Planets (STEP), X-ray timing and Polarization Mission (XTP) and a Space Millimeter-wavelength VLBI Array (S-VLBI) probe.
In the meantime, Wu voiced concerns as the research satellite programs have not been included in China's national major scientific plan, which catalogues the nation's key S&T projects and provides funds from the central treasury.
Nor did Wu entertain the idea that China's satellite programs are pre-planned on a five-year basis. "Sometimes it takes 10 years or even decades to turn an idea to a concrete space project."
Wu said he hoped that the space satellite program will be soon listed in the national scientific development outline and gain continuous financial support in order to transform China from a "pursuer" to a "frontrunner" in this field.