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July 05, 2012

China Beats Russia in Space Launches, Competes Against Commercial

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor


While China's successful manned docking mission went by with a yawn and a footnote in U.S. news, the Russians are a bit more concerned. 

China conducted 10 of the world's 35 launches in the first six months of 2012, according to Russia engine manufacturer, NPO Energomash. 

During the same period, Russia had nine launches, followed by the United States with eight, according to RIA Novosti. The NPO Energomash list also included launches by Arianespace (News - Alert) (three launches) and single launches by Sea Launch, India, Iran, Japan and North Korea. 

Energomash provided engines for 13 of the launches, amounting to 37 percent of the world's total in 2012. The company's engines are incorporated into the Proton, Soyuz, and U.S. Atlas V launch vehicles.

The story in RIA Novosti likely produces more concern and spin in Russia, given China's recent success compared to Russia's mixed track record of launches over the past two years. Russia has had a series of launch delays and failures relating to quality control, losing a dual-use military/civilian communications satellite, the Progress 44 unmanned cargo supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and the Phobus-Grunt Mars probe. 

Flawed testing of a crew-carrying Soyuz capsule ended up with a scrapped spacecraft delaying crew rotation to ISS, leaving the $100 billion orbiting laboratory understaffed by half of its six-person complement for a couple of months.

Russia's concern is fueled by China's building resume in spaceflight accomplishments. Last month, China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft successfully completed both automated and manual dockings with theTiangong-1 orbiting space module. The nearly two-week mission featured the launch of China's first woman into space and the first "taikonaut" to fly for a second time.

China's has a number of ambitious goals for its space program, including its own multi-module space station by 2020 and a landing on the moon.

But China has competition of its own – commercial space. A number of U.S. companies are competing for NASA business to deliver manned crews to ISS, while Bigelow Aerospace is actively talking to a number of countries about providing a turn-key space station presence independent of ISS operations.  

In the near-term, 26 privately funded teams are competing for $30 million of Google (News - Alert) Lunar X PRIZE money.   To get the full $20 million grand prize, a team's robot rover must successfully explore the lunar surface before a government-funded mission is expected arrives in 2013. China is expected to launch a lunar mission next year and if it arrives before an X PRIZE winner, the grand prize drops to $15 million.


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Edited by Braden Becker



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