China wants to tame the clouds and their "celestial rivers" … This is not a tale but a major scientific project to try to solve the drought problems that affect many regions, including the north from China.

To this end, at the Zuhai Air Show, Beijing, in addition to presenting the central module of its future space station, announced a new stage in the progress of this project. The likely launch, in 2020, of two first satellites to facilitate the observation of these "rivers" which are in fact huge compact masses of winds and water vapor that ply the sky over thousands of kilometers.

In the long term, at least six satellites are expected to be launched and will be operational in 2022. They will allow the completion of this scientific project that was launched in 2016 at Tsinghua University in Beijing. At the time, researchers from this university proposed the Tianhe project, which can be translated as "Celestial Rivers", with the aim of supplying water to the most arid regions of the north of the country.

A project on the Tibetan plateau

Subsequently, the Chinese company "Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation" (CASTC), a public defense and space company that also participates in the lunar exploration and construction of the Chinese space station, joined this project, largely funded by the Chinese army.

On paper the idea seems simple. The first step is to intercept, over the Tibetan Plateau, in the Sanjiangyuan area, the water vapor contained in the clouds after the Indian monsoon. And redirect them to areas lacking water to bring down the rain through more conventional techniques of cloud seeding.

A major project since it would produce between 5 and 10 billion cubic meters of rain, or about 7% of China's total water consumption.

24 readings per day

The realization of this project is however complicated even if in the past China has developed techniques for seeding clouds with silver iodide. And for the time being, many unknowns remain.

It is clear that the network of six satellites will make it possible to more precisely track and locate where the "celestial rivers" are and pass by taking no less than 24 readings per day. But Chinese scientists remain unmoved about how, from earth and installed towers, they will redirect these masses of steam.

Because one of the ideas of the project is indeed to modify the road of a part of these "celestial rivers" without, assure the promoters of the project, to have a negative impact on the environment.

In the initial project, a network of 10,000 chimneys would be installed at an altitude of 5,000 meters at the foot of the Tibetan mountains. They would burn a solid fuel continuously, the combustion of which produces silver iodide. Worn by the wind, it would go up along the mountains and then be dispersed at altitude, and sow the clouds.

Claude Fouquet


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