One of KuaFu's aims was probing space weather.

One of KuaFu's aims was probing space weather.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

China pulls plug on solar observatory

According to Chinese mythology, the giant Kua Fu chased the sun in order to stop it from scorching Earth, but died of thirst before he could capture the fiery star. A Chinese space mission named after the legendary figure has met a similar demise: Starved of international support and funding, the KuaFu solar observatory has been suspended indefinitely, and project backers acknowledge that it is unlikely to be resurrected.

First proposed in 2003 by scientists at Peking University, KuaFu was intended as a solar wind observatory placed at Lagrangian point L1—an area of space between Earth and the sun where gravitational forces of the two bodies cancel each other out. Around the same time, space physicist Eric Donovan at the University of Calgary in Canada proposed using two satellites in highly elliptical Earth orbit to image the aurora 24/7. William Liu, then at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), brought the two ideas together into a single mission to track solar outbursts and geomagnetic storms using three satellites. (Donovan contributed significantly to KuaFu’s original mission concept, Liu says.) CSA took on an even larger role in 2009 when it pushed for its own polar communications and weather satellites, which would fly in orbits similar to KuaFu’s two auroral imagers.

KuaFu would have been China’s ticket to the international space science club. Even though the country has had numerous successful space missions since it first put a satellite in orbit in 1970, only one mission so far, Double Star—two satellites launched in 2003 and 2004 by a Chinese-European collaboration to study magnetic storms—was for research; all the others have been engineering projects for specific applications. When the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) took space science under its wing and obtained 3.8 billion yuan (about $580 million at the time in 2010) to fund its decadal space science plan, almost a quarter of the funding went to KuaFu.

KuaFu’s troubles began in 2011, after the Conservative Party of Canada won a majority and formed a government. A round of belt-tightening cut CSA’s budget by 12%, says Liu, who is now KuaFu chief scientist at CAS’s National Space Science Center, forcing the agency to pull out of KuaFu. “KuaFu would have been near launch today” had Canada not abandoned the project, he says.

Following Canada’s withdrawal, Liu says, CAS wooed the European Space Agency (ESA); European scientists already had a number of scientists and instruments involved in KuaFu at that point. But then the European financial crisis hit in 2012, and that December ESA notified CAS that it could no longer collaborate on KuaFu.

Liu tried to save KuaFu by scaling down the mission to a single satellite placed at Lagrangian point L5, forming an equilateral triangle with the sun and Earth. In that gravitational eddy, the satellite “would provide an ideal view of the sun-Earth line,” Liu says, and “the possibility of inferring the velocity and intensity of coronal mass ejections,” huge magnetized gas bubbles ejected from the sun, as well as particle distributions in the wake of the ejections. Instruments carried on KuaFu L5 would complement imaging by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) to provide information on how interplanetary shocks and coronal reconnection accelerate particles, Liu says, and therefore overcome the criticism that KuaFu would simply be a SOHO-lite. Even though the idea of placing a satellite at L5 was not new, Liu believed that with the funding already slated for KuaFu, China could be the first country to get there.

But CAS has now shot down that idea on the grounds that KuaFu is no longer a “major international collaboration,” Liu says. To CAS, a “major” international collaboration meant foreign contribution of satellites, Liu says, and because KuaFu originally was funded on those grounds, “no bureaucrat in his right mind would want to alter the terms and authorize” the new design. Even though Liu blames the Canadian government foremost for KuaFu’s demise, he also laments the lack of risk-taking in China’s scientific bureaucracy. “KuaFu is not just a space science experiment,” Liu asserts, “it’s a barometer of science in China.” Now that European scientists are forging ahead with their space weather L5 mission with similar instrumentation, China will be forced to sit on the sidelines.