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Space-Tech House Demolition, Chinese Style

"Since China successfully recovered its first satellite in 1975, there has never been any injury or fatality due to a satellite landing" : Chen Zugui, Chief Designer of spacecraft guidance, navigation and control system at the Beijing Institute of Control Engineering, of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology.
by Wei Long
Beijing, China (SPX) Oct 20, 2004
The "successful" return of a Chinese recoverable satellite last week ended in an unfortunate apartment demolition incident. Luckily no one was reportedly injured in the bizarre event.

The 20th recoverable satellite FSW-20 (Fanhui Shi Weixing-20, FSW means "recoverable test satellite") returned from space last Thursday (Oct. 15).

The landing occurred on the exact date of the 1st anniversary of the historic Shenzhou-5 mission that made China the third nation to send its own people into space in its own rocket.

The official Xinhua News Agency issued a brief statement saying that the recoverable satellite touched down at 10:43 a.m. Beijing Time [0243 UTC] after spending 18 days in space.

On Sept. 27 a Changzheng-2D (Long March-2D) rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC) in Inner Mongolia at 4 p.m. [0800 UTC] with FSW-20 on board.

Very little information is available on the science payload on the mission, other than a short report from Xinhua stating that there would be experiments on "science research, and land and cartographic surveying".

FSW-20 reached orbit about ten minutes after launch. Xi'an Satellite Control Center (XSCC) in the central Shaanxi Province monitored and controlled the spacecraft throughout the mission. XSCC reported that all spacecraft instruments performed nominally and successfully completed the experiments.

However, the returned capsule did not quite land according to plan.

Chengdu Economic Daily reported on Saturday (Oct. 16) that the flying unit with an unidentified military base in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, was responsible for the recovery of the spacecraft.

The recovery operation started at 9:30 a.m. when military officers, aerospace experts, rescue specialists, surveyors and reporters took off in thick fog in four military helicopters from a military airport in the northern suburb of Chengdu.

At 10:10 a.m. the helicopters were about 150 km east of Chengdu circling above Pengxi County. Twenty-two minutes later at 10:32 a.m. the recovery team acquired the signal from the descending capsule. At the time the capsule was descending toward Daying, one of the neighbouring counties to the west.

But five minutes later (10:37 a.m.) while flying to the designated landing zone, the helicopters lost the signal of the descending capsule; citing the reason of bad weather.

The recovery team reported the loss of spacecraft signal to the command center. The helicopters then immediately changed course to fly to an airport in Suining City, which is 50 km to the south. The team landed there at noon.

By then news arrived that the capsule had landed through the roof of a building in a residential area in Daying County at 10:43 a.m. The recovery team boarded vehicles and drove toward the touchdown area.

Loud Bang Marked Touchdown

While the helicopters were flying to the airport in Suining City, the drama unfolded in Daying County. The capsule was descending toward a food market.

The capsule ended up crashing through the roof of a four-storey building and came to rest on the top floor. The landing caused a very loud bang that startled many locals.

Some people thought that the sound was an explosion of a gas tank.

The capsule punched a hole more than 40 squared meters on the roof and scattered broken ceramic shingles all over the place. The capsule also crushed a wooden bed.

Fortunately no one was indoor when the capsule came crashing in. The damage did not cause any injury in the neighbourhood.

A vendor who witnessed the descent of the capsule said that the descending speed was not fast, like that of a skydiver.

Yu Guozhi, an electrician, told Tianfu Morning Paper that he was the first person to arrive at the scene after the capsule landed. "I was the first person to see the descent capsule, and was also the first person to call the police," said Yu.

He said that he was repairing a television set when he heard the loud bang. When Yu arrived at the apartment, he saw a large parachute with red and white stripes still suspended in midair. Below the chute was a more than 1 meter long, cone-shaped "black roller" with a porthole.

Yu said, "I guessed it could be a satellite returned to Earth, so I immediately called the police." He said that he also heard the sound of helicopters flying nearby.

After making the phone call, Yu grabbed his camera and took many pictures of the capsule from different angles. He also made a peek through the porthole. But media reports did not mention what, if anything, Yu saw inside the capsule.

Reporters also tracked down the tenant of the apartment unit, which was rented to a senior couple. The couple is a fruit vendor at the market.

The wife was very lucky that she escaped injury minutes before the impact. She told reporters that she recalled going back to the apartment near 11 a.m. to use the bathroom, then returned to tend the fruit stall. In less than five minutes, a loud bang came from the direction of the apartment.

The sound shook her up. But when she turned around, she was even more shocked to see a large chute poked through the roof.

A little more than 10 minutes after the commotion broke out, police, fire trucks, ambulances, and convoys of cars with spacecraft recovery personnel arrived on site. By now a huge crowd had gathered at the scene. Police pushed back the crowd and roped off the building.

Difficult Recovery Operation

Under the original plan the recovery team would hook the capsule to a line from a helicopter, which would then fly the spacecraft back to the military base in Chengdu.

As the capsule landed in a dense residential area, if the team followed the same plan the strong downdraft from the helicopter would blow fragile roofs off many buildings.

After an emergency discussion the local government brought in a crane for the recovery operation.

As the crane arrived, it became obvious that its short length would not reach the capsule.

At 1:50 p.m. a 50-tonne crane that the local government borrowed from the highway management unit arrived. Vendors packed up their stalls to make room for the massive crane to pass through the narrow passageway.

Military police on site organized the public to help clear more ceramic shingles and knock down a wall in the apartment unit, while recovery team members examined the capsule. The recovery team reported that the capsule did not suffer any obvious damage.

After many tries, the crane finally lifted the capsule off the building at 3:37 p.m. and lowered it on a truck.

A Mishap, Not To Worry

Beijing Youth Daily quoted a space expert on Oct. 17 as saying that the incident should not be a matter of concern.

Chen Zugui said that with China's very mature capability of returning satellite from space, "the public should not have to worry about the incident." Chen is the Chief Designer of spacecraft guidance, navigation and control system at the Beijing Institute of Control Engineering (502 Institute) of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

Chen explained that high altitude wind and other atmospheric factors, as well as small tolerance in propulsion, could cause deviation in the spacecraft landing. "Thus the satellite landing area, in general, is a zone that centers on the touchdown location with a radius of about 30 km," said Chen.

He added that the designated landing zone would always be located in sparsely populated area. Before the satellite reenters, mission controllers would coordinate with the local government to implement a series of safety and evacuation measures to mitigate injury to people.

Chen stressed that since China successfully recovered its first satellite in 1975, there had never been any injury or fatality due to a satellite landing.

However, Chen and other space experts conceded that the conclusion of the FSW-20 mission was indeed very unusual.

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China Marks Anniversary Of Its First Atomic Bomb
Urumqi, China (XNA) Oct 18, 2004
Chinese scientists, army veterans and students Saturday commemorated the 40th anniversary of the explosion of the country's first atomic bomb. At a commemorative forum in Malan of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region- a place that served as the country's nuclear experiment base 40 years ago- General Xu Ruichen, a retired army official of national defense who once worked at the base, said that China's decision to develop atomic bomb was of great historical significance at a time when the country was put under an adverse international environment.

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