China launches Long March 2D rocket, taking special steps to keep area coronavirus-free

21-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

China launched a Long March 2D rocket from a centre in the southwest of the country early this morning, sending four satellites into near-Earth orbit after scientists took steps to keep the area clear of the deadly coronavirus.

The satellites known as XJS-C, D, E and F will be used to test new technologies including high-speed telecommunications and cutting-edge sensors for next-generation Earth observation satellites, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) said.

“At this unusual time, when the Chinese people are united and fighting in the trenches against the pneumonia plague from the new coronavirus, this is more than just the success of a space mission,” Wu Yansheng, president of the CASC, said in a statement after the launch.

The rocket was launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan province. China’s space authorities plan to launch more than 40 rockets this year a more intense schedule than ever, with no sign of disruption despite the public health crisis that has gripped the nation.

Upcoming Chinese space missions include landing a rover on Mars; bringing samples back to Earth from the lunar surface, which has not been done since the Apollo mission; launching a new-generation spaceship; and testing a prototype module for China’s planned space station.

The new coronavirus strain originated in central China in December, and the pneumonia-like illness has killed more than 2,100 people and infected over 74,000 so far mostly in China.

Special measures were taken ahead of the rocket launch on Thursday to ensure the centre was virus-free, and space authorities said the experience would inform any future missions carried out during an epidemic.

Section heads checked every detail of the rocket and satellites and solved any technical problems before the launch, as is standard. But they also had to monitor and keep detailed health records for all team members. Pre-launch meetings were replaced by remote conferences, and the launch site was divided into separate sections that required special permits to enter.

In addition, the canteens at the centre were shut down and food was delivered to staff in their working areas to limit contact. And in the tense hours before the launch, scientists disinfected the area.

At least one member of China’s space programme has been infected with the virus, according to Beijing Daily. A couple who lived in the staff residential compound of the China Academy of Space Technology in Beijing were quarantined in hospital after returning with their son from a holiday in Dubai over the Lunar New Year holiday, the report said, without giving details of their involvement in the industry.

The mother tested positive for the coronavirus, which causes a disease known as Covid-19, while the father was also suspected to have the virus. They were isolated in hospital on February 9, leaving their 13-year-old son at home alone. The boy had tested negative but was told to stay home, meaning he had to prepare his own meals and look after himself, though health officials and volunteers in protective suits were checking on him every day.

The difficult situation even prompted award-winning space scientist Sun Jiadong, who lives nearby, to send the boy a book and encourage him to “stay strong”, according to the newspaper.

Beijing has taken unprecedented measures to try to limit the spread of the virus, including locking down much of the outbreak epicentre, Hubei province home to more than 50 million people.

While Chinese are being encouraged to return to work after an extended Lunar New Year break, many factories have yet to resume production either because they have been told not to or because it is not possible to meet the stringent requirements imposed. For instance, factory owners must provide staff with face masks to wear, but there is a severe shortage of masks and other protective gear nationwide. Quarantine checkpoints at provincial and city borders have meanwhile stalled traffic, and anyone who has travelled to Hubei recently has to stay at home for at least two weeks.

But some “critical sectors” have been allowed to get back to normal operations earlier, and the space programme is one of them. State-owned airlines such as Air China have put on charter flights for space industry staff who need to travel between different bases to reduce the chance of them contracting the virus on regular flights.

The government has also supplied protective gear including face masks to people working on the space programme.


Category: China

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