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Rocket science at the Games

world Updated: Aug 09, 2008 23:37 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
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An old joke among China’s space scientists goes that they could someday arrange a meeting of the Communist Party, in orbit. And we would not be surprised.

For the first time in Olympic history and unknown to the 1,60,000 spectators, the execution of the Games’ opening ceremony on Friday was as hard as rocket science.

Even before the ceremony and almost until midnight, weather modifiers at 21 Beijing sites shot 1,104 ‘rain dispersal rockets’ into the overcast sky to shoot away rain clouds in the largest operation of its kind in China. From a country that destroyed its own satellite in space last year, can we expect anything less?

If the ceremony began as a tribute to ancient Chinese who invented gunpowder and crude rockets called fire-arrows, the finale was about China’s spaceage. The control center for the entire ceremony adapted technology from control systems for Chinese space missions.

An army of China’s best space engineers who have designed rocket launch systems, worked behind the scenes as Chinese gymnast and final torchbearer Li Ning circled the Bird’s Nest stadium suspended in air for a sporting spacewalk to light a towering Olympic cauldron that was the ceremony’s best-kept secret.

The cauldron had an engine control system based on technologies used to build space vehicles. The stability of the cauldron, that had to loom above the stadium, was first tested in a controlled wind tunnel with tests like those performed on China’s Shenzhou spacecrafts.

“The technology support system of the opening ceremony was a challenge as big as a spacecraft launch,” Zhou Fengguang, head of the Engineering Design and Research Institute of the People’s Liberation Army, described to State-run news agency Xinhua. Space technologies ensured that thousands of devices at the stadium functioned correctly, he said.

In October, soon after the Olympics and Paralympics end, China’s taikonauts or astronauts are slated to head out on the country’s first spacewalk aboard its third manned space mission. China first launched a man into space in 2003, becoming the third nation to do so.

India plans to launch its first unmanned lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 this year, but the scheduled April takeoff was delayed to mid-October. China’s Chang’e 1 unmanned lunar orbiter launched last year, and beamed back pictures of the Moon.

Next year, the Chinese will team with Russian space scientists to send a satellite to explore Martian space. India plans to probe the Red Planet in the next decade.