Tag Archives: china

Emissions drop during pandemic contributed to record rainfall in China

In China, the COVID-19 social and economic shutdown coincided with record rainfall in eastern provinces in 2020 — and it’s no coincidence. This record rainfall quickly turned into flooding, leaving behind hundreds of deaths and millions evacuated. In a new study, researchers found that the extreme rainfall could have been caused by the drop in emissions registered in the country.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

After rising swiftly for decades, global greenhouse gas emissions (GEI) dropped 6.4% in 2020, as the pandemic limited economic and social activities worldwide. The US contributed to most of the decline, while China saw a minor decrease (1.4%) because its economy recovered quickly after the outbreaks in early 2020, according to a 2021 study.

The emissions drop was linked with persistent extreme precipitation in the early and middle summer of 2020 in eastern China, a densely populated and urbanized region. The accumulated rainfall was so big that it broke its 60-year-record since 1961. Rain in the Yangtze River Delta, for example, exceeded the 41-year average by 79%.

Studies have looked at what could have caused this significant change in rainfall, with some suggesting it had something to do with the extreme weather conditions in the Indian Ocean. But a group of researchers wasn’t entirely convinced with this, suggesting that the abrupt drop in emissions was a key factor of the steep rain.

“Aerosols can affect clouds, precipitation, hydrological cycle and atmospheric circulation through microphysical as well as dynamical processes,” the researchers wrote. “In the last four decades, summer precipitation over eastern-central China has decreased significantly, which has been reported to be closely related to the increase in aerosols.”

Rain and greenhouse gas emissions

For the study, the researchers used the Energy Exascale Earth System Model, an ongoing, state-of-the-science Earth system modeling, simulation, and prediction project. It simulates most of the anthropogenic aerosol species, including sulfate, black carbon, and primary organic matter along with sea salt aerosols and natural dust.

Aerosols, usually linked with the burning of fossil fuels, can reduce the frequency of large-scale storms, leading to fewer rains. This new study suggests that the absence of these particles and lower greenhouse gas emissions caused the opposite effect, a big increase in rain. But the events that link the pandemic with the flood are more complex, the researchers said.

Lead author Yang Yang from Nanjing University told BBC that the aerosol reduction caused heating over land, while the decline in emissions caused cooling over the ocean. This intensified the temperature difference between land and sea while increasing sea level pressure and intensifying the winds bringing moist air to eastern China, which saw the intense rain.

Looking ahead, the researchers said the sudden change of the climate system driven by the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 would be very different from the changes triggered by the continuous but gradual emissions reduction to tackle global warming. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry. If the world can’t reduce emissions faster, this could trigger more extreme weather events.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Half plane, half rocket, this Chinese supersonic jet could fly Beijing to New York in only an hour

Credit: Space Transportation.

Chinese company Space Transportation wants to take a jab at the growing space tourism market with a winged rocket capable of suborbital travel. The reusable space plane could take wealthy tourists to the edge of space then land them on the other side of the world in no time. A trip from Beijing to New York would only take an hour.

Space Transportation was founded in 2018 and last August it managed to raise $46 million to develop its flagship supersonic spaceplane. Although details are still sparse, a video presentation on the company’s website shows passengers boarding a vertical plane attached to a glider wing with two boosters. Once it reaches a high altitude in the stratosphere, the airplane detaches from the auxiliary power, with the wing and boosters landing back on the launch pad on their own. The airplane, now in suborbital space, proceeds to its destination, back at the launch site after passengers experience a brief stint of weightlessness or in a different destination altogether, virtually anywhere in the world. Touch down is done vertically on three legs deployed from the rear, according to Space.com.

Credit: Space Transportation.

The developers behind the project seem pretty serious about it. So far, they’ve made 10 flight tests for the self-landing booster rockets, the last of which was done in collaboration with a combustion research lab from Tsinghua University.

In many ways, Space Transporation sounds like the Chinese version of Virgin Galactic and, to a lesser degree, SpaceX. In the summer of 2021, Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson made headlines after he went on an 11-minute suborbital flight, reaching 55 miles (88km) above the Earth’s surface. Just a week later, fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos made it past the Kármán Line, the internationally-recognized boundary of space, at nearly 62 miles (100 km) above Earth’s surface, aboard a capsule launched by Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable rocket.

Credit: Space Transportation.

Global space tourism is projected to reach just $1.7 billion by 2027, according to a report published in 2021. Virgin Galactic has hundreds of reservations for tickets on future flights, sold between $200,000 and $250,000 each. No reservation data has been made public by Blue Origin, but we can presume they’ll soon start making more commercial space tourism flights.

However, neither Virgin Galactic nor Blue Origin seems to be interested in point-to-point travel. In addition to potential space tourism flights, Space Transportation’s vehicle also doubles as a supersonic plane capable of traveling at more than 2,600 mph. SpaceX had plans for a similar concept when it announced its “Earth to Earth” project in 2017, which repurposes its “BFR” rocket originally meant to carry passengers to Mars. But Elon Musk’s company hasn’t released any details about this city-to-city passenger transport since then, which may mean it could have been scrapped entirely.

Perhaps SpaceX found city-to-city supersonic travel financially unfeasible, but Space Transportation doesn’t seem deterred. It is planning ground tests by 2023, the first flight by 2024, and a crewed mission by 2025. Looking farther into the future, the Chinese startup dreams of testing an orbital crew space vehicle, the kind that SpaceX uses to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station, by 2030.

China builds the world’s first artificial moon

Chinese scientists have built an ‘artificial moon’ possessing lunar-like gravity to help them prepare astronauts for future exploration missions. The structure uses a powerful magnetic field to produce the celestial landscape — an approach inspired by experiments once used to levitate a frog.

The key component is a vacuum chamber that houses an artificial moon measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter. Image credits: Li Ruilin, China University of Mining and Technology

Preparing to colonize the moon

Simulating low gravity on Earth is a complex process. Current techniques require either flying a plane that enters a free fall and then climbs back up again or jumping off a drop tower — but these both last mere minutes. With the new invention, the magnetic field can be switched on or off as needed, producing no gravity, lunar gravity, or earth-level gravity instantly. It is also strong enough to magnetize and levitate other objects against the gravitational force for as long as needed.

All of this means that scientists will be able to test equipment in the extreme simulated environment to prevent costly mistakes. This is beneficial as problems can arise in missions due to the lack of atmosphere on the moon, meaning the temperature changes quickly and dramatically. And in low gravity, rocks and dust may behave in a completely different way than on Earth – as they are more loosely bound to each other.

Engineers from the China University of Mining and Technology built the facility (which they plan to launch in the coming months) in the eastern city of Xuzhou, in Jiangsu province. A vacuum chamber, containing no air, houses a mini “moon” measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter at its heart. The artificial landscape consists of rocks and dust as light as those found on the lunar surface-where gravity is about one-sixth as powerful as that on Earth–due to powerful magnets that levitate the room above the ground. They plan to test a host of technologies whose primary purpose is to perform tasks and build structures on the surface of the Earth’s only natural satellite.

Group leader Li Ruilin from the China University of Mining and Technology says it’s the “first of its kind in the world” that will take lunar simulation to a whole new level. Adding that their artificial moon makes gravity “disappear.” For “as long as you want,” he adds.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the team explains that some experiments take just a few seconds, such as an impact test. Meanwhile, others like creep testing (where the amount a material deforms under stress is measured) can take several days.

Li said astronauts could also use it to determine whether 3D printing structures on the surface is possible rather than deploying heavy equipment they can’t use on the mission. He continues:

“Some experiments conducted in the simulated environment can also give us some important clues, such as where to look for water trapped under the surface.”

It could also help assess whether a permanent human settlement could be built there, including issues like how well the surface traps heat.

From amphibians to artificial celestial bodies

The group explains that the idea originates from Russian-born UK-based physicist Andre Geim’s experiments which saw him levitate a frog with a magnet – that gained him a satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000, which celebrates science that “first makes people laugh, and then think.” Geim also won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for his work on graphene.

The foundation of his work involves a phenomenon known as diamagnetic levitation, where scientists apply an external magnetic force to any material. In turn, this field induces a weak repulsion between the object and the magnets, causing it to drift away from them and ‘float’ in midair.

For this to happen, the magnetic force must be strong enough to ‘magnetize’ the atoms that make up a material. Essentially, the atoms inside the object (or frog) acts as tiny magnets, subject to the magnetic force existing around them. If the magnet is powerful enough, it will change the direction of the electrons revolving around the atom’s nuclei, allowing them to produce a magnetic field to repulse the magnets.

Diamagnetic levitation of a tiny horse. Image credits: Pieter Kuiper / Wiki Commons.

Different substances on Earth have varying degrees of diamagnetism which affect their ability to levitate under a magnetic field; adding a vacuum, as was done here, allowed the researchers to produce an isolated chamber that mimics a microgravity environment.

However, simulating the harsh lunar environment was no easy task as the magnetic force needed is so strong it could tear apart components such as superconducting wires. It also affected the many metallic parts necessary for the vacuum chamber, which do not function properly near a powerful magnet.

To counteract this, the team came up with several technical innovations, including simulating lunar dust that could float a lot easier in the magnetic field and replacing steel with aluminum in many of the critical components.

The new space race

This breakthrough signals China’s intent to take first place in the international space race. That includes its lunar exploration program (named after the mythical moon goddess Chang’e), whose recent missions include landing a rover on the dark side of the moon in 2019 and 2020 that saw rock samples brought back to Earth for the first time in over 40 years.

Next, China wants to establish a joint lunar research base with Russia, which could start as soon as 2027.  

The new simulator will help China better prepare for its future space missions. For instance, the Chang’e 5 mission returned with far fewer rock samples than planned in December 2020, as the drill hit unexpected resistance. Previous missions led by Russia and the US have also had related issues.

Experiments conducted on a smaller prototype simulator suggested drill resistance on the moon could be much higher than predicted by purely computational models, according to a study by the Xuzhou team published in the Journal of China University of Mining and Technology. The authors hope this paper will enable space engineers across the globe (and in the future, the moon) to alter their equipment before launching multi-billion dollar missions.

The team is adamant that the facility will be open to researchers worldwide, and that includes Geim. “We definitely welcome Professor Geim to come and share more great ideas with us,” Li said.

China “modified” the weather for a political celebration

If you’re throwing a party in your backyard, you probably wouldn’t want rain or other yucky weather to mess with your plans. But if it happens, there’s not much we can do about it. But that’s not necessarily the case for China, which recently used cloud seeding technology to make sure they don’t have to deal with rain and air pollution ahead of a big political celebration earlier this year.

Image credit: Flickr / Tomislav Domes.

For China, interest to control the weather has quickly escalated over the years, mainly to protect farming areas and have clear skies for big political events. This was the case in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, when the government used cloud seeding to ensure good weather for good events, and has apparently become more and more common in recent years. From 2012 to 2017, China spent over $1.3 billion on weather modification programs. 

Cloud seeding has been around for many years, at least as a concept. It works like this: you inject small amounts of silver iodide into clouds that have a lot of moisture, which condenses around the new particles, become heavier, and eventually fall as rain. A study from 2019 was the first one to definitively confirm that this actually works. After this, there are no more rain-forming clouds around, and you’re guaranteed to have clear weather for some time.

THe other benefit is in terms of air pollution. Beijing, China’s capital, is well known around the world for its high levels of air pollution – caused by the burning of coal to produce electricity and vehicle emissions. In 2019, China was classed as the 11th dirtiest country in the world. But on its 100-year celebration, the Chinese Communist Party would have none of it.

A clear-skied party

The Chinese Communist Party celebrated its centenary on July 1st, with thousands of people gathering at Tiananmen Square. It was a lovely day, but this wasn’t just good fortune. According to a paper from Tsinghua University, first reported by the South China Morning Post, the government used cloud seeding hours to ensure clear skies. 

The celebration in Beijing was due to be a rocky one, as the city faced an increased in air pollutants and an overcast sky back in July, the researchers reported. It was one of the wettest summers on record. Factories had been closed down days ahead of the celebration to prevent high air pollution levels but this apparently wasn’t enough.

In the paper, environmental science researchers Wang Can says a two-hour cloud-seeking operation was carried out before the celebration, with residents seeing rockets launched into the sky on June 30th – carrying silver iodine. The artificial rain was successful, as the level of PM2.5 pollutants was reduced by almost two-thirds.

For the researchers, the drop in pollution was directly related to the artificial rain as this was the single disruptive weather event in that period. According to the China Morning Post, it rained almost every day in the week before the ceremony. And on the day it happened, the participants were given raincoats as part of a souvenir pack. 

Last year, China unveiled a plan to expand its experimental weather modification program to cover an area 1.5 times the total size of India. According to a government statement, China will have a fully functional weather modification system in place by 2025 thanks to new research and technologies and improvements in risk prevention.

Third Chinese city goes back into quarantine to control local COVID-19 flare-ups

Chinese authorities have placed a third city under lockdown as part of efforts to control flare-ups of COVID-19. Around six million people in the country are now living in quarantine.

Image via Pixabay.

This year’s Winter Olympics games are scheduled to take place in China’s capital city of Beijing. Due to this, local authorities are keen to stamp out any COVID-19 cases in their country, both to protect the athletes and, likely, in hopes of getting praised at home and abroad.

As part of this effort, several Chinese cities are observing partial or full lockdowns. On Tuesday, the city of Lanzhou in the Gansu province was placed under complete quarantine. Today, the third city — Heihe — has been placed under the same restrictions.

Locked down again

China has had a hardline stance on the spread of the virus ever since it first emerged in 2019. The country was quick to institute targeted lockdowns, quarantine whole cities, and enact border closures to stop the spread of the virus. In broad lines, all these measures did pay off, and China grappled with the first wave of the pandemic quite effectively.

But they didn’t stop the coronavirus entirely. Several new flare-ups have been recorded in at least eleven of the country’s provinces, sparking a whole new round of lockdowns and quarantines.

Together with the four-million-citizen-strong Lanzhou, the city of Ejin (home to around 35,000 people) in Inner Mongolia has also been placed under lockdown three days ago. This decision follows a period of several days during which locals were ordered not to leave the city until further notice. Throughout China, an estimated six million people are now under quarantine. A few more tens of thousands are under orders to stay at home and limit their outside interactions to those that are strictly essential.

This Thursday, the city of Heihe in Heilongjiang province has also issued orders for its citizens to stay at home and forbidding travel outside of the city except in emergencies. Local authorities have also begun performing a testing campaign for its 1.6 million residents, and contact-tracing efforts for those identified as infected.

According to state media, public transportation and taxi services inside the city have been suspended, and vehicles were not allowed to go outside its bounds.

Residents in Beijing have also been ordered not to leave the capital since Monday, and quarantines have been imposed in certain residential areas.

China vows to stop funding coal power projects abroad

We need big steps from governments to tackle the global climate crisis, and this could turn out to be one of those. China announced it won’t finance the construction of coal-fired power plants abroad anymore. Depending on how this is implemented, it could limit the further expansion of coal power and bring down greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not all good news from China.

Image credit: UN.

Attending the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Chinese President Xi Jinping said the government will “step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy, and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.” No further details were provided, but it was largely celebrated as a win by campaigners — and for good reason. 

China has been the largest public funder of foreign coal for many years, especially in growing Asian economies. A report by the Boston University Development Policy Center showed that the state banks China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China funded $43 billion worth of coal projects since 2000 outside China. 

But the country’s enthusiasm for coal seems to be changing. The country announced last year a surprise 2060 target for carbon neutrality, which will mean deep cuts in coal power, both domestically and abroad. So far this year China hasn’t funded any new coal power project abroad and has worked with NGOs to withdraw from coal power. 

“It is further evidence China knows the future is paved by renewables. The key question now is when they will draw a similar line in the sand at home,” Thom Woodroofe, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy, told The Guardian. “It was also in many ways an easy decision for China to take ahead of COP26 – far easier than peaking emissions by 2025.”

China’s coal challenge

China’s decision comes after being subject to international pressure to ditch coal financing abroad. In July, G20 member countries tried to make a solid push against coal but China, India, and Russia blocked the move. US climate envoy John Kerry and COP26 President Alok Sharma traveled to China more than once and asked the government for foreign a coal moratorium. Until now, there had been no success.

South Korea and Japan had already made similar pledges earlier this year to ditch coal financing, and now it was China’s turn. The three countries account for 95% of all foreign coal financing in the world, with China being the most important player, Joanna Lewis, director of science, technology, and international affairs at Georgetown University, told the BBC.

While this was a big step forward for China’s climate policy, campaigners agree that the country must now tackle its domestic coal fleet – which accounted for 56% of its energy generation in 2020. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, followed by the United States and India, according to the NGO Union of Concerned Scientists.

China is the largest consumer of coal around the world and it’s still increasing the construction of new plants. A study by the Global Energy Monitor found that last year China built more than triple the amount of new coal power capacity as the rest of the world combined. In response, Xi said China will “strictly control” coal projects and limit their expansion.

China still hasn’t presented an updated climate pledge ahead of the COP26 climate summit, something the US and the European Union have already done. At UNGA, Xi reiterated China’s previous pledge of peaking emissions before 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. “This requires tremendous hard work and we’ll make every effort to meet these goals,” he said. 

Global emissions are expected to grow by 16% in 2030 compared to 2010, according to a recent UN report based on countries’ current climate pledges. That would put Earth on track for a more than 2.7ºC temperature increase by the end of the century, triggering all sort of extreme weather events such as heat waves and droughts. 

Why has China restricted online gaming for kids?

Credit: Pxhere.

In early September, new rules introduced by the Chinese government came into effect: everyone under the age of 18 cannot enjoy more than three hours of online video game time per week. Furthermore, this allocated playtime can’t be used whenever one pleases.

Children and teenagers may game only on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and national holidays — and only between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Online game vendors have already complied with the new rules and are now requiring logins that are real-name verified. Tencent, the country’s leading gaming developer, has even rolled out a facial-recognition login feature dubbed “midnight patrol” to prevent children from using adult logins to get around the curfew.

These new rules serve to tighten earlier limits set in place by the Chinese government, which had restricted online playtime to 90 minutes during the weekdays and three hours on weekends for those under 18. Gaming consoles like the Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox have been banned in China since 2000.

These new restrictions — which affect more than 268 million people in China — seem incomprehensible and unacceptable in the free world and have been criticized as a gross interference of the state in the private life of its citizens. So, what got into China?

Video games cannot be allowed to destroy a generation, says China

State-run news agency Xinhua claims authorities have implemented these restrictions as a way to protect the youth. In the weeks leading up to the new policy, Xinhua and other Chinese state media have gone as far as comparing video games to “spiritual opium” and “electronic drugs.”

According to statistics released by Chinese state media, 6 in 10 Chinese minors play online video games frequently. More than one in 10 spend more than two hours each day during the school week playing online games on their mobile devices.

Some parents have responded by sending their kids to military-style camps where no devices are allowed for months to combat so-called “gaming disorders.”

Chinese authorities believe abusing online games interferes too much with children’s school assignments and personal growth, as well as affects their health. For instance, China blames video games for its growing cases of nearsightedness among children.

But are there that many Chinese children addicted to video games and are their lives so much negatively affected by them that these rules are warranted? Data is woefully lacking in this respect, but it is very likely that Chinese parents and especially Chinese authorities have a different view of what constitutes genuine gaming addiction — and at the end of the day, this wouldn’t be the first time the Chinese government imposes this type of restriction.

What gaming addiction is

Joanne Orlando, a digital wellbeing expert and psychologist at Western Sydney University, says that gaming addiction resembles gambling addiction. Once you cross the line from a leisure activity to compulsive and intense behavior, you’re entering addiction territory.

The World Health Organization says that a person needs to demonstrate all three of these symptoms in order to receive a gaming addiction diagnosis:

  • losing control over how much you’re gaming
  • prioritising gaming to the extent that it takes precedence over other activities and interests
  • continuing to game despite negative effects on school, family life, work, health, hygiene, relationships, finances or social relationships.

According to Orlando, playtime isn’t indicative of developing an addiction, it’s behavior. As long as a child doesn’t show harmful behavior, time spent gaming isn’t necessarily a cause of concern. In fact, according to the American Psychiatric Association, only 0.3% to 1% of the population will be diagnosed with gaming addiction.

That being said, many modern online games are specifically designed to be very compelling. These games provide incentives that hook players and motivate them to spend as much time playing as possible through a clever design of missions, rewards, and gameplay. Some children who lack self-restraint may end up having the gameplay them rather than the other way around. It is because of these dopamine-firing design elements that Chinese officials hyperbolically compare video games to opium.

Orlando adds that there should be some boundaries set around gaming by parents. But concerning children who genuinely develop online video game addiction, the researcher urges parents to self-examine their own behavior and parenting. Some kids play video games all day because life at home is a mess, for instance, which is the parents’ responsibility.

Policing society

Despite efforts from the government, kids are smart and will always find ways to escape these restrictions. It’s likely Chinese youth will shift to unlicensed games available on foreign platforms or gaming on virtual private networks (VPNs).

But while Chinese kids may find a way to continue playing online games on somebody else’s platform, domestic vendors have been hit hard. Tencent and NetEase, the largest Chinese gaming developers, have both lost nearly 10% of their share price, shedding tens of billions in market cap.

Chinese regulators targeted these two companies, in particular, summoning them to focus less on profit and further clamp down on how minors can play their video games. “Companies failing to follow the requirements will be stringently punished,” state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

This year, authorities cracked down on the entire tech sector, including Alibaba, often referred to as the Amazon of China, and Didi, known to many as the Uber of China. They’ve also targeted online tutoring companies, which Chinese regulators see as offering an unfair competitive advantage to families who can afford them.

This attitude is owed to a combination of factors. As an authoritarian state, China cannot afford to have companies that grow too powerful and wants to control the digital data gathered by these vendors. There’s a growing concern with wealth inequality, which authorities are trying to keep under control by restricting the influence a handful of companies or individuals wield in Chinese society. Last but not least, online games are by their very nature social, and authorities need to control the conversation in order to maintain their grip on society.

Policing the country’s next generation is thus not all that surprising given China’s track record of censorship and interference in its citizen’s private life.

China releases stunning Mars photos to celebrate 100 days on the red planet

Zhurong is China’s first rover to land on another planet. Part of the Tianwen-1 mission to Mars conducted by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the rover has been on the red planet for over three months. To celebrate the achievement, China released a set of striking photos from the Martian surface.

The Zhurong rover has been exploring Mars for over 100 days. Photos: CNSA via Xinhua

So far, the rover has traveled just over 1 kilometer and has already exceeded its initial objectives. It was only expected to operate on Mars for three months, so everything it accomplishes from now on is a bonus.

The rover’s main objective is to look at the Martian geology and atmosphere, surveying the minerals and rocks it encounters, as well as the soil and ice (should it come across it). The rover is also equipped to sample the Martian atmosphere.

The rover is surveying a geologic area called Utopia Planitia, the largest known impact basin in the solar system, with an estimated diameter of 3300 km. This is also where the Viking 2 lander touched down and started exploring in 1976.

However, the orbiter will have to pause its exploration in a couple of weeks, when Mars and the Earth will be on opposite sides of the Sun (almost in a straight line). During this period, called the Mars solar conjunction, communications with the rover will be interrupted.

But this is unlikely to end the rover’s mission, as everything so far seems to be going smoothly. In addition, the Tianwen-1 Mars mission also consists of an orbiter that will continue to circle Mars. The orbiter has already been in place for over 400 days.

China’s ambitions to establish itself as an authentic space power seem more serious than ever. After launching the first module on its new space station and launching astronauts on the module, China is focusing much of its space efforts on the moon but also has its eyes on other targets, such as Mars.

For those of us eager to learn more about the solar system, this new space race looks like a treat.

At the same time the Zhurong rover is carrying out its mission, the American Perseverance rover is also exploring Mars, with much more ambitious objectives. For starters, Perseverance is expected to last at least a few years on Mars, and at over a ton, it dwarfs Zhurong’s 240 kilograms (529 lbs). Perseverance is also equipped with more and more diverse sensors, capable of studying Mars in more detail. It is also accompanied by the Ingenuity helicopter, the first man-made object to take flight on a foreign planet. Ingenuity has also covered more than 2.67 km (1.66 mi) in flight, accompanying Perseverance, which covered 1.97 km (1.22 mi).

There’s still a big gap between the US and the Chinese space programs, but with unprecedented spending and a lot to prove to the world, China’s eager to close in on that gap.

China’s ethnic cleansing could prevent 4.5 million Uyghur births by 2040. Researchers say this is genocide

Uyghur protest at UN Climate Summit in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

China’s abusive treatment of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province is, by now, an open secret. Human rights groups estimate that up to one million Uyghur people have been detained over the past decade in what the Chinese state calls “re-education” camps. A new study now provides the most compelling evidence that China is actively seeking to control and reduce the population of Uyghurs and replace them with Han Chinese.

Dr. Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic of Xinjiang internment camps, is the lead author of the new study, which found China is employing cruel population control policies and tactics, such as enforced birth control, forced displacements, and re-education camps. These measures could see between 2.6 and 4.5 million fewer Uyghurs being born by the year 2040. Zenz goes as far as stating that these ethnic cleansing policies could be classed as genocide under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention.

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghur are Turkic-speaking people who live for the most part in northwestern China, in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

The first mention of these Central Asian people in Chinese records dates from the 3rd century CE. In the 8th century, they even established their own kingdom along the Orhan River and what is now Mongolia.

Today, the Uyghur people, which are Sunni Muslims, number around ten million in Xinjiang, around half of the region's population. However, Uyghur used to constitute a larger proportion of Xinjiang's population until a large number of Han (ethnic Chinese) began moving into the autonomous region. This migration began in the 1950s and became especially pronounced after 1990. By the late 20th century, Han Chinese constituted two-fifths of Xinjiang's population.

Over time, tensions between the two ethnic groups grew, resulting in protests and culminating in an outbreak of violence in 2009, in which 200 people were killed and some 1,700 were injured. In response, Chinese authorities have cracked down on Uyghurs suspected of being dissidents and separatists.

However, human rights groups have accused China's government of using its security crackdown as an excuse to launch an ethnic cleansing campaign meant to turn Xinjiang into a Han-majority region. Up to one million Uyghurs are reportedly detained in "political training centers", which have been likened to the gruesome re-education camps from the bloody Mao Zedong era. China also installed an extensive state surveillance programme with cameras, checkpoints, and constant police patrols in Uyghur-dominated areas.

According to Human Rights Watch, people's behavior is monitored with a mobile app, such as how much electricity they are using and how often they use their front door.

Forced labor and mass sterilization, part of China's strategy to revamp Xinjiang's ethnic makeup

Satellite images showing the rapid development of detention camps in Xinjiang. Credit: Google.

Satellite imagery suggests that factories have been used within the grounds of the heavily fortified internment camps. Xinjiang produces about a fifth of the world's cotton, and human rights groups have accused China of using forced labor in the camps to produce much of this cotton.

Many Western brands have removed Xinjiang cotton from their supply chains in 2021. In response, China blocked the online shops and greatly hindered sales for H&M, Nike, Burberry, Adidas, Converse, and other brands that announced they would no longer source their cotton from Xinjiang.

In a new study published today in the journal Central Asian Survey, Zenz compiled the most important evidence to this date concerning Uyghur abuse at the hand of Chinese authorities, concluding that China is on a campaign to depopulate Xinjiang of Uyghurs.

According to Zenz, Beijing is “attaching great importance to the problem of Xinjiang’s population structure and population security,” which it intends to 'optimize' with instructions on how to proceed coming from the very top of the central government.

After analyzing a trove of publicly available documents, the researcher documented a state-run scheme meant to forcibly uproot, assimilate, and reduce the population of Uyghur people. These efforts have ramped up starting since 2017, resulting in mass internment for 'political re-education', but also systematic birth control, mass sterilization, and forced displacement.

In a previous 2020 study, Zenz revealed that Xinjiang authorities are administering drugs and injections to Uyghur women in detention, implanting intrauterine contraceptive devices, and coercing women to accept surgical sterilization.

As a result, population growth rates have fallen nearly 85% in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018. Meanwhile, the birth rate in Han-majority counties declined by only 20%.

Zenz estimates that the birth control measures could result in a potential loss to the Uyghur population of between 2.6 and 4.5 million by 2040.

“My study reveals the presence of a long-term strategy by Beijing to solve the Xinjiang “problem” through “optimization” of the ethnic population structure,” Zenz said in a statement. “The most realistic method to achieve this involves a drastic suppression of ethnic minority birth rates for the coming decades, resulting in a potential loss of several million lives. A smaller ethnic minority population will also be easier to police, control and assimilate.”

The 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention defines genocide as "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," and Zenz says that this optimization campaign could fall under this definition.

Initially, China denied the existence of internment camps in the Xinjiang region. After the evidence was undeniable, Chinese authorities defended their existence as a necessary measure against terrorism and separatist violence. China has dismissed claims it is trying to reduce the Uyghur population through mass sterilizations as "baseless", and says allegations of forced labor are "completely fabricated".

“The most concerning aspect of this strategy is that ethnic minority citizens are framed as a “problem”. This language is akin to purported statements by Xinjiang officials that problem populations are like “weeds hidden among the crops” where the state will “need to spray chemicals to kill them all. Such a framing of an entire ethnic group is highly concerning,” Zenz said.

Space rice feeds new space race: China is getting serious

With two swift strokes, China showed it’s taking its space agriculture projects very seriously. After harvesting its first batch of “space rice” that went to the moon, China is also distributing lunar soil samples to research institutes to assess lunar habitability.

The return capsule of China’s Chang’e-5 probe lands in Siziwang Banner, north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, on Dec. 17, 2020. Photo: Xinhua.

Rice from the heavens

China is doing much more than dipping its toes into space exploration. After setting up its own space station, sending a rover on Mars, and reporting breakthroughs in quantum space communication, China now has its eyes on a different prize: space agriculture.

Food security has long been a concern for China, and as the country strives to feed its 1.4 billion inhabitants while also raising the standard of life, the challenge won’t be easy. Apparently, in the long run, China also sees space exploration as an avenue worth exploring. Recently, the country harvested the first “moon rice” from seeds that returned from the moon last year. Researchers hope that the experience can help them create new, more resilient plant varieties.

China’s fascination with space breeding crops has been a surprisingly prolific endeavor. Since 1987, the country has been carrying seeds of rice, cotton, and other crops into outer space. The reasoning is that after being exposed to cosmic radiation, seeds can undergo useful mutations that make them produce higher yields and make them more resistant to pests.

“It was a breakthrough of mutation rice breeding experiments in deep space,” said Chen Zhiqiang, director of the lab center in an interview with Xinhua News Agency.

“The seeds have experienced special environments including microgravity and sunspot eruption in the process of space travel, which affects the genetic variation of rice seeds.”

Overall, 1,500 rice seeds weighing 40 grams traveled with the spacecraft. They were then grown in a greenhouse and planted in the field in the South China Agricultural University campus.

Of course, it takes a lot of research to ensure that this is indeed the case, but over 200 of these space crops have been approved for planting in China. It normally takes a few years before these varieties enter the market.

After taking a trip around the Moon, the rice was grown back on Earth.

With the Chang’e-5 lunar probe, rice seeds have traveled deeper into space than ever before, and the impact of cosmic rays and microgravity is stronger. As a result, Chinese researchers expect to see more genetic effects on the seeds — though whether or not these effects are actually useful remains to be seen.

Moon crops

China also wants to establish a research station and base on the moon, and may even look at using a lunar greenhouse for growing crops. Having access to non-terrestrial crops will also be helpful for future manned spaceflights (especially longer missions).

To this end, China distributed batches of 17 grams of lunar soils to 13 research institutes, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China University of Geosciences, and Sun Yat-Sen University. The goal is to use the samples to understand more about the moon’s geology and evolution, but also to peer into its potential habitability. In its lunar mission, China was already able to grow crops on the lunar surface, after cotton seeds successfully sprouted inside a special mini-biosphere container.

For China, this is also an opportunity to boost its standing as a space power — not just among other countries, but among its inhabitants as well. Lunar soil was also exhibited in Hong Kong, which the state-owned Global Times noted as a boost to “patriotic sentiment.” Chan Wai-keung, a lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, reportedly told the Global Times that it would be beneficial for people in Hong Kong to “arouse their patriotic sentiment through China’s achievements in aerospace”.

Slowly but surely, a new space race seems to be heating up.

China wants to practice deflecting an asteroid with rockets

A government-funded study from China says that by using 23 Long March 5 (CZ-5) rockets (the largest China has in its fleet), we could break up rocky objects in our solar system and save the Earth from potentially catastrophic asteroids. The country wants to put the hypothesis to the test.

Asteroid Bennu: a carbonaceous asteroid in the Apollo group discovered by the LINEAR Project on 11 September 1999. It is a potentially hazardous asteroid. Image credits: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona.

Asteroids come in many shapes and sizes. Many are as small as pebbles, while others are kilometers or even hundreds of kilometers across. A kilometer-wide asteroid strikes the Earth on average once every 600,000 years, and would have global consequences, but even a 500-meter asteroid, which hits the Earth once every 10,000 years, can easily kill millions.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from science fiction, it’s that having an insurance policy against such an asteroid could come in handy. At China’s National Space Science Center, researchers simulated just that.

The researchers analyzed how Long March rockets could help deflect such an asteroid on a course for our planet. They found that 23 such rockets hitting simultaneously could deflect a large asteroid from its original path by a distance of 1.4 times the Earth’s radius — more than enough to avoid catastrophic damage.

The technology is at our doorstep “[It is] possible to defend against large asteroids with a nuclear-free technique within 10 years,” said author Li Mingtao and colleagues in a June paper published in Icarus

According to Reuters, China would also test the idea by turning away a sizable asteroid, although details on this are still scarce at this point.

China is far from the only country looking at this type of technology. In less than two years’ time, NASA will also look at asteroid-deflecting technology. The space agency will launch a robotic spacecraft to intercept two small asteroids relatively close to the Earth and see how much their trajectory changes. This will be humanity’s first attempt at deflecting the course of a celestial body.

However, while it’s encouraging that several countries are working on asteroid-deflecting programs, whether or not space powers would collaborate in a potential doomsday scenario is anyone’s guess.

“The problem is, when the doomsday threat comes, politics may override science and lots of time may be wasted on debates to decide which country should take the lead,” said an unnamed space researcher at Beijing’s Tsinghua University for SMCP. The researcher did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

China’s CZ-5 rockets are also a bit concerning. Due to their size, their descent back onto the Earth can become quite hazardous and difficult. In May, one such rocket crashed traveling at thousands of miles an hour. While the debris didn’t hit any human settlement, it showcased that China needs to up its game as a responsible space power.

Is the ‘Dragon Man’ a new species of human? Here’s what we know so far

Artist’s impression of Dragon Man. Credit: Chuang Zhao.

Last week, paleontologists in China broke the news that they have identified a 146,000-year-old cranium that may belong to a distinct, up until now unidentified species of humans. This tentative new species, known as Homo longi, or Dragon Man, has a mix of features shared by Neanderthals, Denisovans, and humans. If it is indeed a new species, scientists believe it may be the closest relative to modern humans, replacing the Neanderthals as our closest extinct kin.

The Dragon Man skull

From left to right are the skulls of Peking Man, Maba, Jinniushan, Dali, and Harbin. Credit: Kai Geng.

The skull was found near Harbin, a town in northeast China, in 1933 by bridge construction workers. Its potential importance was missed until 2018 when it reached the hands of a team of paleontologists led by Xijun Ni, a professor of primatology and paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hebei GEO University.

Unlike most other hominin fossilized skulls that are usually crushed and fragmented, the Harbin skull was discovered remarkably intact. Its only major flaw is that it has only one tooth still attached to the mandible, a left molar.

In a series of three papers, the researchers described the extraordinary skull, which could hold a brain comparable in size to modern humans. It features almost square eye sockets beneath a heavy brow ridge reminiscent of the Neanderthals but has a wide face with small, flat cheekbones that is typical of modern humans. The cranium, which scientists believed belonged to a 50-year-old male, also features a wide mouth and oversized teeth.

“The Harbin fossil is one of the most complete human cranial fossils in the world. This fossil preserved many morphological details that are critical for understanding the evolution of the Homo genus and the origin of Homo sapiens. While it shows typical archaic human features, the Harbin cranium presents a mosaic combination of primitive and derived characters setting itself apart from all the other previously named Homo species,” said Qiang Ji, a professor of paleontology at Hebei GEO University.

A new species of human? not so fast

Artist impression of Dragon Man. Credit: The Innovation.

Like modern humans, Homo longi probably hunted mammals and birds, gathered wild fruits and vegetables, and perhaps even caught fish. Considering the Harbin individual was large in stature, as well as the location where it was found, the researchers believed that H. longi was well adapted to harsh environmental conditions.

Geochemical analyses showed that the Harbin man fossils are at least 146,000 years old, placing them well within the Middle Pleistocene, an era when humans were busy dispersing across the world. It is thus very likely that H. longi encountered Homo sapiens, as well as Denisovans and Neanderthals.

“We see multiple evolutionary lineages of Homo species and populations co-existing in Asia, Africa, and Europe during that time. So, if Homo sapiens indeed got to East Asia that early, they could have a chance to interact with H. longi, and since we don’t know when the Harbin group disappeared, there could have been later encounters as well,” says author Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London.

When the researchers reconstructed the human tree of life to account for H. longi, they found that the tentative new species is even more closely related to us than Neanderthals and represents a sister species. This implies that Homo sapiens must have split from Neanderthals even further back in time, diverging from a common ancestor roughly 400,000 years earlier than scientists had previously thought.

“It is widely believed that the Neanderthal belongs to an extinct lineage that is the closest relative of our own species. However, our discovery suggests that the new lineage we identified that includes Homo longi is the actual sister group of H. sapiens,” says Professor Ni.

But is Homo longi truly a new species of human? It’s a bit too early to tell. The Harbin man may well be a Denisovan, an extinct species of archaic human that ranged across Asia during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic and whose fossil record is very scant. So far, the only fossils we have found of Denisovans include a finger bone, a few teeth and a skull fragment retrieved from Denisova Cave in Siberia, and a jawbone from Xiahe, northern China.

According to Ars Technica, when “Ni and colleagues did their statistical analysis, they pointed out that the Harbin skull fell into a group along with the 160,000-year-old Denisovan mandible from Xiahe. Given the great diversity of shapes and sizes that human skulls come in, it wouldn’t be that surprising for the Harbin skull to actually belong to the range of diversity for Denisovans.

If scientists manage to extract DNA from the Harbin skull, they could then compare it to the genomes of Denisovans, Neanderthals, and modern humans, to which we have access. That would settle at least some of the debate.

In any event, the Harbin skull is hugely significant. If it turns out to be a distinct species, then the human tree of life just got enlarged with one member. If subsequent research shows it is from a Denisovan, then we’ll finally know what these rather mysterious cousins looked like. So a win/win for science.

Futuristic planned tower in China would feature 99 floating islands

How to create a spectacular landmark for a city’s skyline while also evolving the very idea of what makes a tower? Well, a group of architects have an idea. They want to build a new structure called the “ethereal tower” comprised of 99 floating islands in the massive Chinese city of Shenzhen.

Image credit: Sou Fujimoto

Shenzhen is a coastal city in the south of Guangdong Province, just 41 kilometers from Hong Kong. Benefiting from its location, Shenzhen has grown dramatically in the past few decades, becoming a modern and international metropolis and is known as “China’s Silicon Valley”. It hosts major tech companies such as Huawei and Lenovo, as well as many emerging start-ups, and over 12 million people call it home. 

With a massive skyline, Shenzhen is China’s fastest-growing city. It transformed from a small fishing town to a bustling megacity within decades. Every year, millions flock to its city center from around the globe seek to benefit from its investment-friendly practices, while tourists admire its futuristic landscape. Shenzhen trails only Shangai and Beijing in China for overall GDP. Now, the city wants something spectacular to show for all this growth.

Renowned Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto created a design for a massive floating tower on the bay of Shenzhen’s Qianhaiwan district. He pitched his idea at a competition that was set to address the questions of “What does a new ‘tower’ mean in the 21st Century?” and “How can a tower evolve while continuing to attract attention, as the Eiffel tower does?”

The proposed tower is 268 meters tall (880 feet) and would be made up of 99 individual tower-like pieces, joined by a strong horizontal place in the top section. The pieces gradually fade away as they descend, giving the impression that they are floating in the air. It’s simultaneously a single tower and a collection of towers, symbolizing the future of societies in the age of diversity. 

Image credit: Sou Fujimoto

The tower will be built mainly from steel, carbon fiber, concrete and Kevlar rope, with a peripherally located steel truss system with Kevlar tension cables maintaining the cores’ balance. A centralized core serves as the basis for the whole tower, which is joined together by outlying tension cables that resemble water flowing down to the bay.

A mirrored inverted frozen fountain will include an observation deck, exhibition area, restaurant, and cafe within the cables. The top deck is planned to be used for exhibitions, hoping to appeal to both visitors and locals as a social center where breathtaking views of the city and the bay can be viewed all around. It’s a design hoped to fit an evolving city.  

Image credit: Sou Fujimoto

This is hardly the first futuristic project proposed in Shenzhen — architects are flocking to the new metropolis, and the city’s skyline is already starting to show its status. However, as amazing as it may look, it’s still not clear whether the construction will actually green-lighted. If it does though, it will be a sight to behold.

Image credits: Sou Fujimoto
Image credits: Sou Fujimoto.
Image credit: Sou Fujimoto

China just launched three astronauts to its new space station module

China successfully launched three astronauts into space in what’s a step closer to finishing its new space station. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft (or the Divine Vessel) was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert, sending the crew to the core module of the planned space station. 

The three astronauts at the press conference before the launch. Image credit: China’s National Space Administration

The spacecraft will dock with the core module on the planned space station, called Tiangong (or Heavenly Palace), which is still under construction in a low Earth orbit. The astronauts will stay in orbit for three months, during which the life support system and maintenance will be tested. It’s China’s first manned mission in almost five years.

The Tianhe module is 16.6 meters long and 4.2 meters across at its widest point. Inside, the astronauts will have to test equipment and technology, some of which have never been used before in a manned space flight. The module also has a set of tools to help the astronauts, including a robotic arm that can move to any location on the station’s surface.

The mission is led by Nie Haisheng, who is also the oldest member of the team and has a background as a fighter pilot. He was recruited to the space program in 1998 and this was his third trip into space. He was aboard China’s first mission with more than one astronaut in 2005 and then was part of the 2013 mission to test its docking technology. 

The second crew member is Liu Boming. He joined China’s 2008 space mission, helping Zhai Zhigang become the first Chinese astronaut to conduct a spacewalk. Now, he will have a key role during outside cabin operations. Tang Hongbo is the crew’s youngest member and the only one of the three that hasn’t traveled to space yet.

“This mission will be the first manned flight as part of the China space station’s construction. I’m very fortunate to kick off the first leg of the space station’s construction,” Nie said at a press conference. “China’s space exploration development has crystallized the Chinese people’s thousand-year dream of flying to the sky.”

A new space station

Over the years, the International Space Station (ISS) has housed more than 200 astronauts from 19 different countries — but not China. Its astronauts can’t access the ISS because of political objections coming from the United States. This is why China has had the long-time goal of building a space station of its own, a plan that is now starting to take shape. 

In April, China launched the first module of the space station – which will have to be assembled from several modules launching at different times. The station is expected to be finished by 2022 and is supposed to operate for 10 years. It will the largest artificial structure in space when the ISS is eventually retired. 

The module holds living quarters that will house astronauts for up to six months at a time. In the future, two laboratory modules will also be sent up, followed by four cargo shipments and four rockets laden with crew. Roughly 12 astronauts are currently in training in preparation for missions aboard the Chinese Space Station.

China’s National Space Administration has already selected experiments to be run onboard the station, including work with ultracold atoms to research quantum mechanics, materials science research and work on medicine in microgravity. It also has several international partners that will send experiments onto the space station.

The new station and Russia’s intention to leave the ISS could spell an end to an era of international cooperation in space. Zhou Jianping, chief designer on China’s manned space program, said in a press conference that while China is not considering foreign astronaut participation at this stage of the station’s development, non-Chinese astronauts will “certainly” be welcome into the years ahead. Whether or not that becomes the case, however, remains to be seen.

China became the third country to independently make a soft landing on the Moon in October 2003, launched a pair of experimental single-module space stations, and have collaborated closely with other countries in the field of space exploration. It also launched an unmanned rover to the dark side of the moon.

China Mars Rover Zhurong releases images of Mars, starts roaming the Red Planet

After sending a few photos of its landing site, China’s Mars rover is now driving around and exploring the surface, said state-run Xinhua news agency said.

Image credit: CNSA

The first images beamed back by Zhurong were black-and-white images taken by the rover’s obstacle avoidance camera, as well as a color image taken by a navigation camera of the rear of the rover showing that its solar panel and antenna have unfolded normally, China’s Space Administration (CNSA) said. 

China is now only the second nation after the United States to successfully put a probe on the surface of Mars and operate it for a significant length of time. Chinese scientists hope to get at least 90 Martian days of service out of the six-wheeled robot at its location on Utopia Planitia, a vast terrain in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

Zhurong, named after a god of fire in Chinese mythology, weights 240 kilograms and is equipped with six scientific instruments. It was launched by a type of rocked called Long March 5 from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, China, on July last year. The rover then spent seven months en route to Mars before entering its orbit.

Image credit: CNSA

Its mission is to study the planet’s topography, geology, and atmosphere, seeking to understand the distribution of ice in the region. A tall mast carries cameras to take pictures and aid navigation, while five additional instruments will investigate the mineralogy of local rocks and the general nature of the environment, including the weather.

The mission, named Tianwen-1 or “Quest for Heavenly Truth,” is one of three that launched last summer, along with NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February, and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Probe. Unlike the US and China, the UAE probe is not intended to land on Mars but instead to study the planet from orbit.

“As the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the United States and the world look forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity’s knowledge of the Red Planet,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, said in a statement, congratulating China on the first images of the mission.

China’s President Xi Jinping sent his congratulations on the successful Mars mission, hailing it as an “important step in China’s interstellar exploration.” China had already attempted to reach Mars in 2011 with the Yinghuo-1 probe. But the mission failed due to a malfunction that stranded the probe in Earth’s orbit shortly after launch. 

The country’s space program reached world headlines earlier this month because of an out-of-control rocket that plunged into the Indian Ocean. The rocket, Long March 5B, had launched as part of China’s new space station into orbit in late April and had then been left to hurtle through space uncontrolled until Earth’s gravity pulled it back in.

China is already a space power in its own right, after sending astronauts into space, powering probes to the Moon, and landing; only the US and Russia can claim this. China still has a way to go to catch up with the US and Russia, as it’s lacking the decades of experience the two countries can boost

China has come a long way in its race to catch up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration, but it’s making great strides. Already, China wants to send people to its new lunar station by 2022.

However, the country has also drawn international criticism recently due to its inability to control return of one of its rockets, which ultimately disintegrated over the Indian Ocean in an uncontrolled landing back to Earth.

Chinese rover releases first photos from Mars after a smooth landing

Zhurong from the front the moment it descended from the landing ramp. Credit: CNSA.

China successfully landed its six-wheeled Zhurong rover on Mars, early on May 14. Similar to the touchdown of its American counterpart, Perseverance, which reached the red planet in February, the Chinese vehicle used a combination of a protective capsule, a parachute, and a rocket platform to make the descent. Now, Zhurong has released its first pictures from the Utopia Planitia landing site, a vast region in the planet’s northern hemisphere.

Up until Zhurong, only NASA had mastered landing on Mars. All other countries that tried before either crashed or lost contact soon after their vehicle reached the surface.

Zhurong, which means God of Fire, was carried to Mars on the Tianwen-1 orbiter, which arrived above the planet in February. Since then, the probe had been patiently orbiting the planet, surveying Utopia Planitia in search of the safest place to target a landing.

The images released by the China National Space Administration include a black-and-white photo taken by the obstacle avoidance camera from the front of the rover, showing a ramp from the lander extending to the surface. The message is clear: this is supposed to be the historical moment right before the rover’s wheels touch the surface of Mars.

Zhurong from the back. Credit: CNSA.

The second image is in color and shows the back of Zhurong, including the rover’s antenna and fully deployed solar panels.

Additionally, China released a brief video showing the lander separating from the orbiter that carried the rover to Mars. This dive through Mars’ atmosphere, known as the “seven minutes of terror”, is considered the most challenging part of any voyage to Mars’ surface.

The moment the lander separated from the orbiter. Credit: CNSA.

Zhurong’s successful landing on Mars is the latest in a series of major milestones for China’s space program. In December 2020, China successfully landed a spacecraft on the moon’s surface in a mission to retrieve lunar surface samples, only the third country to do so after the United States and the Soviet Union decades ago. In 2016, China launched its second space laboratory, Tiangong 2, and is planning the launch of a third space station soon.

Unlike its American predecessors, Zhurong has a very flexible schedule. Its mission is set to run for only 90 days during which it will use its instruments to investigate local rocks and the general natural environment, including the weather. The colossal Utopia Planitia basin, measuring over 3,000 kilometers across, was formed by an impact early in the planet’s history. Scientists believe it once held an ancient ocean.

The next rover bound for Mars is Rosalind Franklin, previously known as the ExoMars rover, part of the international ExoMars program led by the European Space Agency and the Russian Roscosmos State Corporation. The mission was scheduled to launch in July 2020 but was postponed to 2022.

China’s population surpasses 1.4 billion but reports slowest growth rate in decades

Over the past ten years, China’s population has grown at its slowest pace since the 1950s amid a plunge in births and a graying workforce, according to new government data. This presents one of the most significant social and economic challenges the country has seen in modern times, subject to similar aging trends as other developed nations like Japan or Finland.

Image credit: Rajitha Ranasinghe

The 2020 results of the country’s once-a-decade census showed that the population of mainland China rose by 5.38% to 1.41 billion. The average annual growth rate on the last decade was 0.53%, down from 0.57% between 2000 and 2010. The census was done in late 2020, with seven million census takers going door to door in China.

The proportion of people 15-59 years of age made up about two thirds of the population but dropped by about seven percentage points from 2010, the census showed. Meanwhile, people aged 60 or older rose by more than 5 percentage points. That means fewer workers will be supporting more retirees in the years to come.

The country, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, had a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman for 2020 alone, in line with aging societies like Japan and Italy.

“The aging of the population has further deepened, and in the coming period [we will] continue to face pressure for the long-term, balanced development of the population,” Ning Jizhe, head of China’s statistics office, said at a news conference presenting the results of the census.

The sharp deterioration in demographics will now put pressure on the Communist Party to ramp up incentives to couples to have more children. China introduced in the 1970s the “one-child policy” that limited most couples to one child but then in 2016 it decided to loosen that rule. Nevertheless, birthrates have not surged to previous levels.

China’s working-age population, people aged between 16 and 59, has also declined by 40 million as compared to the last census in 2010. China’s chief methodologist Zeng Yuping said that the total size “remains big” with 880 million but economists warn that going toward this could be a problem for China’s potential economic growth.

Upcoming challenges

While far larger than the entire population of the UK or France, China’s population increase is the smallest recorded since the first census was done in 1953. And the shortage of new births suggests this trend will continue. Only 12 million babies were born last year, the fourth year in a row that births have fallen in the country.

The current population dynamics could force Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, to reconsider the Communist Party’s family planning policy, which is among the world’s most intrusive. Liang Jianzhang, a research professor of applied economics at Peking University, told the New York Times that this is a “long-term time bomb” for China.

Presenting the results, Ning acknowledged that government policies affected fertility but said that improved living standards and changing social attitudes were playing an increasingly important role, as they have elsewhere. Low fertility is a problem faced by most developed countries, and it will also be a problem for China, he acknowledged.

As countries become more developed, birth rates tend to fall due to education or other priorities. China’s neighboring countries Japan and South Korea have seen birth rates fall to record lows in recent years despite various government incentives for couples to have more children. Last year, South Korea saw more deaths than births for the first time in history.

“It doesn’t take published census data to determine that China is facing a massive drop in births,” Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank, told Reuters. “Even if China’s population didn’t decline in 2020, It will in 2021 or 2022, or very soon.”

A new 5-year plan adopted by China in March calls for reducing the burdens of having, raising, and educating children by improving child care services and parental leave policies. Parents still face fines if they have more than two children. In an op-ed last year, economist Liang Jianzhang recommended building a “fertility-friendly society” with subsidies and incentives.

The government is also discussing the possibility of raising the retirement age, among the world’s lowest at 60 for men and 50 for most women, to ease pressure on the underfunded pension system. But the opposition has been widespread. Young Chinese adults worry job competition would increase, while older adults fear they might not find a job as younger works are preferred.

China’s emissions now exceed all developed countries combined

It’s a powerhouse for renewable energy, but it still heavily relies on coal plants. It has committed to being carbon neutral by 2060 but presented no clear roadmap on how this will happen. It has the world’s largest population, with a growing climate footprint as purchasing power increases.

Evidently, it’s not easy for China to take action on climate its emissions significantly — and unfortunately… it’s about to get worse. China emitted more greenhouse gas than the entire developed world combined in 2019, the first time this has happened since national emissions have been measured, a new report showed. Even if everything goes according to plan, China won’t reach peak emissions by 2030, which means its output will continue to grow.

A coal fired electric plant in Henan Province, China. Image credit: Flickr / Polywoda

According to the Rhodium Group, global emissions reached 52 gigatons of CO2-equivalent in 2019, increasing 11.4% over the past decade. And China’s share is growing fast. While its emissions were less than a quarter of the ones of developed countries in 1990, they have now tripled over the past three decades.

This leaves China in a difficult spot. It contributed to 27% of the total global emissions last year, largely exceeding the United States, now the second-highest emitter having contributed to 11% of the total, the report showed. India ranked third for the first time with 6.6% of the global emissions, a position that used to be held by the EU — now, the European bloc is quickly outpaced by developing countries.

The researchers also calculated per capita emissions. With a population of 1.4 billion, China ranked much lower than the developed world. But’s that also changing fast. Last year, its per capita emissions reached 10.1 tons – three times higher compared to two decades before. Already, per capita, China is emitting more than countries like France, the UK, or Spain.

This is just below average levels across the bloc of countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — and those figures are greatly skewed because of the US — which per capita, still emits about twice as much than China or the EU. The researchers predict that when the 2020 data is available, China’s per capita emissions will have exceeded the OECD average of 10.5 tons.

Still, China’s has one argument in its favor: its history as a major emitter is much shorter compared to developed countries, many of which had a head start more than a century ago. A large part of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year hangs around for hundreds of years. That means global warming is the result of both recent and past emissions. But if things continue in this line, they’ll catch up in no time.

The report showed that since 1750 members of the OECD bloc have emitted four times more CO2 on a cumulative basis than China. This means they are largely to blame for the 1ºC increase in global average temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. That’s why the UN says there are common but differentiated responsibilities on climate.

The road ahead

China’s growing emissions put the world in a difficult place regarding the climate crisis. Countries committed in the 2015 Paris Agreement to do everything in their power to reduce emissions and limit temperature growth to 2ºC, ideally aiming at 1.5ºC. However, countries are far from meeting that commitment.

Countries would have to collectively increase their climate action threefold to be in line with the 2ºC goal of the Paris Agreement, UN estimates. Meanwhile, to be in line with the 1.5ºC target, they would have to do so fivefold. The world is now heading to global warming of about 3ºC based on the current climate pledges — and China’s trajectory is definitely not helping.

During a virtual climate summit organized by the US last month, China reiterated its pledge to peak emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 — a decade later than other major economies. President Xi Jinping also said the country would peak coal use in 2025 and start to phase it out the following year.

But China continues to finance fossil fuel projects overseas and is continuing to build out coal-fired power plants at home. It is both the world’s largest producer of renewable energy and its largest coal consumer. The country currently has 1,058 coal plants in operation, which is more than half the world’s capacity.

According to the Climate Action Tracker, a website that tracks government climate action, China’s climate pledge (also known as NDC) is “highly insufficient” and “not at all consistent” with the targets of the Paris Agreement. China is supposed to present a new and more ambitious climate pledge at some point this year.

China launches first module in its new Space Station

This Thursday, China launched the main module of its new, permanent space station.

A rendering of a module launched Thursday that will host astronauts long-term. Image from video footage run by China’s CCTV, via AP Video.

Christened Tianhe, the module was sent into orbit on a Long March 5B launching from the Wenchang Launch Center in the province of Hainan. It represents the first and central part of their upcoming permanent space station, which will be completed over a series of 11 missions.

Many high-ranking officials and military leaders watched the launch live from the control center in Beijing. Xi Jinping, the President of the Communist Party sent a message of congratulations for the ground crew in celebration of the successful launch.

The launcher that brought Tianhe to orbit opened its fairings a few minutes after the launch, revealing the module with the characters for “China Manned Space” emblazoned on its exterior. It separated from the rocket soon after this and extended its solar arrays. The rocket will orbit around Earth for about a week before naturally falling back down to be recovered.

Needless to say, this is an important step for China and its manned space program. The module holds living quarters that will house astronauts for up to six months at a time. In the future, two laboratory modules will also be sent up, followed by four cargo shipments and four rockets laden with crew. Roughly 12 astronauts are currently in training in preparation for missions aboard the Chinese Space Station.

If everything goes according to plan, the station should become operational by late 2022 and be considerably smaller than the International Space Station (weighing 66 and 450 tons, respectively). That being said, the Chinese station is comparable to the former Soviet Mir station in size, is intended to operate for at least 10 years, and was designed to allow upgrades of up to six additional modules.

China first started work on the new station in 1992, and work picked up on the project after the U.S. objected to China being allowed onto the International Space Station due to concerns regarding military interest and potential technological espionage by China.

So far, the Asian country seems to be doing OK, however. They became the third country to independently make a soft landing on the Moon in October 2003, launched a pair of experimental single-module space stations, and have collaborated closely with other countries in the field of space exploration. It also launched an unmanned rover to the dark side of the moon and is currently the latest country to bring back samples of moon rocks with its Chang’e 5 probe.

Why China is banning one of the world’s largest Bitcoin mining hubs

A typicalbitcoin mining farm in China. Credit: Investopedia.

Bitcoin and the nearly 8,000 other cryptocurrencies it has spawned promise to revolutionize finance but it’s doing so leaving a dirty footprint. Mining Bitcoin consumes as much electricity as entire countries like Argentina or Ukraine.

Although the recent surge in bitcoin price has driven even more mining operations across the world, mining tends to be concentrated in certain regions — regions where energy tends to be cheap.

By far, the largest bitcoin mining hub is China’s Inner Mongolia, which is responsible for 8% of all the planet’s bitcoin mining. For comparison, the entire United States is responsible for just 7.2% of global bitcoin mining. However, this is set to change after the Chinese government ordered Inner Mongolia to shut down all cryptocurrency mining operations and ban new crypto operations in a bid to crack down on fossil fuel-intensive energy consumption.

Mining bitcoin is extremely energy-intensive due to the way the network was set up, which involves complex algorithms that demand a lot of computing power to solve each time a transaction is verified or a new block is added to the blockchain (this is what bitcoin mining actually does).

It’s no coincidence that Inner Mongolia has grown into the world’s most important crypto mining hub. The Chinese region, which stretches from the Tibetan plateau’s northeast ramparts along the great bend of the Yellow River toward China’s far northeast, is also a huge industrial stronghold and a major hub for physical mining of coal and rare-Earth minerals. The concentration of coal mines and coal-fired powered plants has made Inner Mongolia’s electricity dirt cheap.

Up until not too long ago, crypto miners paid Inner Mongolia’s Electric Power Trading Center only 2.60 cents per kWh. That’s more than five times cheaper than the 13.31 cents per kWh that the average residential customer in the United States pays for electricity.

With electricity so cheap, Inner Mongolia rapidly drew bitcoin miners who found their operations increasingly profitable as the price of the crypto asset surged.

But China’s government has apparently had enough. After reviewing the region’s energy consumption and energy intensity, Beijing found that Inner Mongolia failed to meet the 2019 targets it set out. It was the only one out of China’s 30 mainland regions that had failed to meet Beijing targets, which drew a lot of criticism from the central government.

To save face and redeem itself, the local authorities of Inner Mongolia have planed a number of drastic rules in an effort to curb energy consumption. According to a draft rule issued by the region’s state planner, energy consumption growth will be capped at around 5 million tonnes of standard coal equivalent for 2021.

Part of the new orders means plants and factories that use outdated and inefficient technologies to produce steel, ferroalloy, coke, graphite electrode, and coal-powered electricity must close by the end of 2022.

The energy control measures also target bitcoin mining. All existing cryptocurrency mining projects have until April 2021 before they must shut down. The approval of any new mining projects has been banned.

Inner Mongolia has also vowed to increase its share of renewable energy by installing more than 100 gigawatts of renewable generation capacity by 2025.

But China isn’t cracking down on cryptos solely out of environmental concerns. The decentralized nature of cryptocurrencies is completely incompatible with China’s governance that requires a tight grip over virtually every aspect of its citizens’ lives.

It’s really no surprise that a communist country like China hates bitcoin. Previously, China banned initial coin offerings and shut down many businesses involved in crypto operations, including exchanges and sites like YuanPay Group. More recently, China has taken a more complex approach, with American billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel claiming that China even uses bitcoin as a ‘financial weapon’.