China launched its newest communications satellite, Shijian-13, on Wednesday. Other than a throughput capacity that exceeds all of the country’s earlier communications satellites taken together, Shijian-13 was another first for the Asian powerhouse: it is propelled by an ion thruster, which coverts solar energy into fuel.
The ion thruster was indigenously developed by Chinese researchers, who spent about five years on it, Chinese daily Global Times reported. The thruster reduces the amount of jet propellant needed to be carried by the spacecraft for it to carry out maneuvers in space, potentially improving efficiency by up to a factor of 10, according to engineers from the Lanzhou Institute of Physics, which built the thruster.
The country has a very ambitious space program, including building its own space station and landing on the crewed mission to the moon, and earlier in the year, it declared a November mission that would return samples from the moon.
Closer in time, the launch of the country’s first cargo spacecraft is currently scheduled for April 20. Tianzhou-1 is the first cargo vessel independently built by China, and can carry a payload of up to six tons. There is one capsule each for carrying the cargo and the propellant, and the spacecraft will weigh about 13 tons at liftoff. It has been designed to stay in space for up to three months.
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