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From earth orbit to the watery deeps, it's been a good week for Chinese scientists and technologists.

This Monday, China's Shenzhou IX spacecraft successfully docked with its orbiting space module, letting a crew of three "taikonauts" board the space lab for the first time.

The docking and entry into the space lab was a matter of intense national pride, and the government televised all the procedures at the Tiangong 1 module, a name that means "heavenly palace." The crew included China's first female taikonaut Liu Yang, a pilot from the Chinese Air Force. Before her name was announced there were some bizarre statements from Chinese space experts about the criteria for selecting China's first space-going woman; they declared that she must be married, have given birth naturally, and have no scars or body odor.

The orbiting module is only about 10 meters long by 3 across, and is intended as a precursor to a larger space station that is scheduled to be launched in three sections beginning around 2020. China is also planning manned missions to the moon, maybe as soon as 2025.

Back on our own planet, another crew of intrepid Chinese explorers steered a submersible down into the Mariana Trench. The Jiaolong submersible, which I wrote about last year, was designed to be the deepest diving research sub in the world. This week the three-person sub descended into the Mariana Trench, the deepest crevice on Earth, and set a record for manned research submersibles when it reached a depth of 6965 meters below sea level. Today the Jiaolong is diving again, and the researchers hope to reach the ceremonial depth of 7000 meters before returning home. Before this week's mission, Japan's Shinkai 6500 was the deepest diving research sub.   

Of course, a good deal of the Jiaolong's thunder has been stolen by private citizens who have built their own submersibles capable of reaching the absolute nadir of the Mariana Trench, nearly 11 000 meters down. Film director James Cameron completed that ultimate dive in March in his DeepSea Challenger, which has been described as a "vertical torpedo." Meanwhile the Virgin Oceanic team, funded in part by Sir Richard Branson, is still trying to get its underwater plane ready for the Mariana mission. However, these private vessels aren't capable of serious scientific exploration or extensive sample collection.

Images: Xinhua; ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

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Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

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