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Pausing for Tiangong
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Aug 19, 2011

Illustration of the Tiangong mission.

The recent failure of a Long March 2C satellite launch will certainly displease China's spaceflight community. It raises another interesting question. Will the launch failure affect the upcoming flight of Tiangong 1, China's first space laboratory?

There are reasons to suggest that China could simply forge ahead with the launch, which is expected by the end of the month. Launch failures happen to everyone from time to time. The gremlins that plague one rocket don't necessarily jump to others.

Some of these failures are caused by random problems that don't repeat consistently, ranging from faulty parts to badly implemented procedures. Right now, we can expect that Chinese engineers are examining the potential causes of this recent failure, but it will probably take some time before they can reach any firm conclusions.

With some investigations, getting a firm conclusion is impossible. There could be a change of course from the usual gentle pace of a failure investigation, as engineers initially focus on a few specific issues that could carry over into the Tiangong launch.

This won't solve the mystery of the launch failure, but it could help to certify that the next mission won't meet a similar fate. Later, the normal course of a meticulous postmortem for the Long March 2C will continue.

Then again, if little can be determined in the near future, it could be advisable to wait. The Tiangong laboratory will launch atop a different type of rocket, but it still has a design heritage that traces back to the Long March 2C, and uses much of the same basic engineering concepts.

There could still be even more common elements than the basic design would suggest. It's probable that many small parts are common to the two launch vehicles, even in rocket stages and engines that aren't exactly identical between different Long March variants.

If the failure of the recent launch was caused by a faulty part, there could be a problem with the manufacturing process. This, in turn, would suggest that other parts in the same production batch could be faulty.

The Tiangong mission is a very high-profile launch, and much publicity has surrounded it. It's an essential part of China's human spaceflight program, which is really the showcase of China's efforts in spaceflight. A second failure, so soon, would be embarrassing, especially when the world will be watching this launch.

There's another wildcard in the game. China has repeatedly stated that the launch vehicle for Tiangong, dubbed Long March 2F/G, features many improvements. This is the first time that this rocket has ever been launched. Some of the improvements would almost certainly be modified parts and sub-systems.

Could some of these have also been added to the recent Long March 2C launch? If so, they may quickly become prime suspects in the investigation of its failure. This may require a major overhaul of not only the launch preparations for Tiangong, but the very design of the rocket itself.

The fate of Tiangong hangs in the balance. There are reasons to expect China to press on after a brief overview, and reasons to expect major delays. Soon we will know the fate of the mission. China will need to act quickly if it wants to keep this important mission on schedule. Then again, Tiangong has experienced plenty of delays in the past.

Another slip wouldn't really matter too much in the long term, but a launch failure would have serious implications for China's human spaceflight program.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


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