As China steps up its lunar exploration, some scientists in the country are planning another space project, the "Kua Fu Mission"to study the sun.
At the ongoing 36th Committee on Space Research Scientific Assembly, Tu Chuanyi, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the project, expected to be launched in 2012, will study the complex Sun-Earth system and improve the space weather forecast.
The mission will raise the standard of end-to-end observation of the Sun-Earth system, and advance scientists' understanding of the basic physical processes underlying space weather, said Tu, who is also a professor with Peking University.
Tu said the mission is designed to observe the complete chain of disturbances from the solar atmosphere to geospace, including solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), interplanetary clouds, shock waves, and their geo-effects, such as magnetic storms and auroral activities.
The name of the mission comes from an ancient Chinese legend of Kua Fu, who tried to catch the Sun and enter it.
"The Kua Fu mission may start at the next solar maximum, the year of 2012, and with an initial mission lifetime of two to three years," Tu said.
He said the mission is composed of three satellites: Kua Fu-A and Kua Fu B1 and B2. Kua Fu-A will be located at the Lagrangian point L1, the point stable with respect to gravitational forces between the Sun and the Earth, and have solar instruments to continuously observe the solar activities.
Kua Fu B1 and B2 will be in polar Earth orbits that enable continuous observations of the aurora in northern hemisphere, which shows the influence of the Sun activities to the Earth, said the scientist.
The Kua Fu mission is now at the comprehensive review stage, said Tu, adding that this study will be concentrated on a further review of the mission objectives and a further decision of the scientific payload.
At the same time, the Chinese space industry will conduct preliminary engineering studies on various technical elements, including satellite platform, launch strategy, tracking and control as well as data transmission system.
A dozen of leading scientists from Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Canada and other countries are expected to participate in the project.
William Liu, chief scientist of space physics and atmosphere science with the Canadian Space Agency, told Xinhua that the Kua Fu mission is of great scientific significance and would reach the world leading level in this field.
If the mission is launched as expected, it will be the world's first space project systematically probing the Sun-Earth environment, he said.
Violent solar activities may cause malfunction of satellites, disturbance to the communication facilities on the Earth, and bring danger to the life safety of astronauts, Liu said.
The Kua Fu mission may help predict solar activities and enable human to take measures to prevent damage caused by the solar activities, Liu said.
However, Liu said China still faces many technological problems to implement the KuaFu project.
The Kua Fu-A must be accurately sent to the Lagrangian point, which is 1.5 million kilometers away from the Earth. But China has never sent a satellite to a distance that far, Liu said.
In addition, scientists on the Earth must adjust the satellite and receive the weak signals from the satellite. These key technologies have not been acquired by China at present, Liu said.
The project will help the development of those technologies in China, he added.
Eric Donovan, an associate professor with the University of Calgary of Canada, said Canadian scientists will take part in the design of the satellites orbiting around the Earth and the instruments to be carried on the satellites.
Rainer Schwenn, a German scientist who has also participated in the project, said, "Despite the enormous progress in recent years, there is still a lack of understanding of several key links in the long chain of actions and reactions that connects the Earth to the Sun."
The problems include the origin of disturbances at the Sun and our inability to forecast them; the propagation of their effects to the Earth; their capability of entering the Earth system; and the magnitude of the terrestrial effects, Schwenn said.
The European Space Agency's Solar System Working Group has praised the Kua Fu mission concept and noted a widespread interest within the European scientific community, according to Schwenn.
German scientists have designed three important instruments for KuaFu A, he added.
(Xinhua News Agency July 21, 2006)