The Chinese space program has received enough traction in recent months. As Beijing gears up to fully operationalize its space station and plans a joint lunar base with Russia, China claims to have constructed a research facility that simulates the low-gravity condition on the moon.
The research facility was inspired by frog levitation experiments using magnets, as per reports. According to scientists involved in the project, this might provide valuable research for China’s lunar exploration efforts.
The simulator, which is located in the eastern city of Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, is slated to open in the coming months.
China's Chang'e 5 lunar lander has discovered the first on-site evidence of water molecules on the moon's surface, putting a long-running scientific debate regarding the satellite's humidity to rest, according to a study in the journal Science Advances.https://t.co/G9GEwY0pnY pic.twitter.com/yZOfPx01Nl
— Chinese Embassy in Kenya (@ChineseEmbKenya) January 12, 2022
The announcement comes on the heels of China’s claim that its Chang’e 5 lunar probe has found on-site evidence of water on the moon’s surface. Chang’e 5 is China’s fifth lunar exploration mission, and first sample-return mission. These findings would provide more clues to Chang’e 6 and Chang 7 missions that are to commence in the future.
Lead scientist Li Ruilin, from the China University of Mining and Technology, said it was the “first of its kind in the world” and would take lunar simulation to a new level. In an interview on January 11, Li stated that the simulator can make gravity “disappear”.
Low gravity can be achieved in an aircraft or a drop tower, but only for a short time. However, in the simulator, Li stated that the impact can “last as long as you wish”.
In 2018, Chinese state media had reported that the country was planning to launch its own ‘artificial moon’ by 2020 to replace streetlamps and reduce electricity costs in urban areas.
Chinese scientists are planning to launch an artificial moon into orbit by 2020 to illuminate city streets after dark and replace street lights.
It will be over 5 times brighter than the natural moon. pic.twitter.com/Tku0dZMWNj
— Dr Ola Brown (@NaijaFlyingDr) October 21, 2018
Chengdu, a city in southwestern Sichuan province, is developing “illumination satellites” which will shine in tandem with the real moon, but are eight times brighter, China Daily had then reported. It was supposed to be a mirror orbiting Chengdu at the height of 500 kilometers.
However, this new ‘artificial moon’ offers gravitation like that of the actual moon, carefully curated by scientists using a magnetic field.
What Does This Artificial Moon Look Like?
There is a vacuum chamber that shelters a miniature “moon” of 60cm (about 2 ft) in diameter. The artificial lunar terrain is made up of rocks and dust that are as light as those on the moon – where gravity is about one-sixth as strong as on Earth – thanks to the magnetic field that supports them.
When the field is strong enough, it can magnetize and lift objects against gravity, from a live frog to a chestnut.
“Some experiments such as impact tests need just a few seconds [in the simulator],” said Li, who is associated with the University’s key laboratory for geo-mechanics and deep underground engineering. “But others such as creep testing can take several days.”
This statement is indicative of the strenuous and intense work that could have possibly gone behind developing an artificial moon. According to an article published last week in the Journal of China University of Mining and Technology, drill resistance on the moon could be substantially higher than expected by theoretical models, based on experiments conducted on a smaller prototype simulator, according to SCMP.
The moon simulator, according to Li, may also be used to see if new technologies like 3D printing could be employed to build structures on the lunar surface. He believes it could aid in determining if a permanent human settlement could be developed there, as well as issues such as how well the surface traps heat.
The magnetic force required to simulate the harsh lunar environment on Earth is so intense that it could tear apart components like superconducting cables. Add to that the numerous metallic components required for the vacuum chamber, which do not work well in the presence of a strong magnet.
To overcome these obstacles, Li said the team devised a variety of technical advances, including mimicking lunar dust that could float more freely in the magnetic field and replacing steel with aluminum in several essential components.
He stated that researchers from all around the world would be welcome to visit the Xuzhou facility.
China’s Growing Space Ambitions
China remains committed to its lunar base mission that it has reportedly expedited by about 8 years. Chinese space officials announced a new completion deadline for the unmanned lunar colony on December 27 last year. It plans to open the base in 2027, rather than the previously planned 2035. The lunar base mission is being jointly pursued by China and Russia, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times.
According to Li, the Xuzhou facility will play a crucial role in China’s future lunar missions, including the construction of infrastructure on the moon.
It will allow scientists to test equipment in a replica of the lunar environment, where rocks and dust can behave in a completely different way than they do on Earth, potentially saving money. On the moon, there is no atmosphere, the temperature can change fast and dramatically, and soil particles are more freely attached to each other in low gravity.
NASA’s Artemis program also aims to send astronauts to the moon by 2024. China may have expedited its lunar mission and now could be seen as extensively preparing for it so as to prevent the United States from establishing any relative hegemony over the moon.
Along with its own space station, its robotic arm that could grapple satellites and its hypersonic tests, China has been posing as a significant challenge to the USA. The space race is only set to intensify as the two rivals pull up their socks and go all out in their endeavors.