Global Times: Chinese Gen-Zers aim for journey to the sky with more imaginative innovation propelled by China’s modernization process

BEIJING, Dec. 26, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Li Shiyi often has a dream that is both fantastic and real. In the dream, her fish “fly” in the zero-gravity environment of space.

Nearly every day after school, the 17-year-old would go to the lab and check on the school of marlins in their artificial incubators, watching them swim nimbly in the sand and water, or lie quietly on the transparent walls of the incubators.

She often imagined that one day, instead of being placed in the school lab, the incubator would be sent to China’s Tiangong Space Station. At an altitude of 400,000 meters above the earth, the carefully raised marlins would eventually appear on Taikonauts’ dinner table.

Li has taken the first step toward fulfilling her dream. At the First International Space Science and Scientific Payload Competition (ISSSP) in May this year, Li and four other students shared their project of “experimental study on the cultivation of multiple generations of marlin in the space station,” and won the bronze prize.

According to the ISSSP organizers, some of the winning projects selected through the competition will be recommended as candidates for a flight to the Tiangong Space Station, the International Space Station, and other scientific satellites.

“We are looking forward to see our experimental project would be adopted,” Li told the Global Times with excitement. “I really hope that our taikonauts will enjoy fresh fish soup in China’s space station.”

‘Send marlins to China’s space station’

The first ISSSP, organized by the Beijing Institute of Technology, the Chinese Institute of Electronics, the International Academy of Astronautics, the China Space Foundation, and the Chinese Society of Astronautics, was the first-ever international space competition in China to gather and cultivate global talents and projects in space science and payload technology. It attracted students of all ages, and many participating teams submitted innovative experimental project ideas.

Li is a student at the Dali Senior High School (Dali) in Foshan. To select candidates for the ISSSP, in September 2022, when a new semester had just started, the school issued a space knowledge questionnaire to the freshmen, so as to discover the students’ interests and their related knowledge in the field.  

The enthusiasm of the students surprised Chen Hongyu, a physics teacher at Dali. He recalled that the school planned to select 10 candidates to form two teams for the ISSSP, and it received more than 200 completed questionnaires.

“Their enthusiasm for the competition was much higher than expected,” said Chen, who also served as the leader of Dali’s participating teams for the first ISSSP.

Li became one of the candidates. Always curious about the universe, Li said she hoped that by participating in this competition, she would make a small contribution to China’s space industry.

Li had seen Shenzhou-13 crew member Wang Yaping introduced experiments on fish and rice cultivation through Tiangong Classroom lectures. The idea of “raising fish in space” jumped into the minds of Li and her teammates.

The team chose “cultivation of marlin in space station” as its experimental project for the competition after discussion. They learned that the marlin can adapt to a variety of environments, and it can be exposed to the surface of water for a long time as long as its body is kept hydrated. Moreover, the marlin is a nutritious and tasty fish, which can meet the nutritional needs of astronauts.

“Currently the taikonauts only eat vacuum-packed food, and that is not fresh enough. Fresh soups would make for a welcome change,” Li told the Global Times. “We chose this project in the hope that if our taikonauts want to have soup in the space station, they will be able to enjoy fresh and delicious fish soup.”

An experiment of raising fish began. The team spent weeks designing and making the marlin incubator. Under the guidance of Chen and other teachers at the school, it modified the incubator a dozen times, installing several devices including water inlets and outlets, vents, an oxygen balance device, and an automatic feeder.

Although the cultivation was carried out as a “controlled pre-experiment” due to limited conditions, the team still designed many small details that took the space environment into account, such as microgravity and certain ionizing radiation conditions, Chen said.

Considering that marlins may float up in microgravity, they designed a rolling gauze device at the opening of the incubator, “to help the floating marlins return to the water and sand in the incubator,” he told the Global Times.

It was a process of constant innovative problem-solving. One day in November 2022, when temperatures in Foshan plummeted, the team found that the marlins in the incubator had frozen to death overnight.

“We were all stunned,” Chen recalled. He encouraged the shocked and discouraged team members to start afresh. This time, they took temperature into account, adding a temperature control device to the incubator.

On May 11, the ISSSP final gathered many young students full of imagination, curiosity, and scientific research spirit. Some participants shared their idea of inventing a snake-shaped robot that can detect and repair faults in the space station, and others shared a vision of planting roses in space for possible mutagenesis breeding, which they hoped would result in the production of precious rose essential oil.

As participants in the secondary school group, Li’s team presented data and observations from several months of marlin-raising experience, and answered questions raised by on-site experts. One of the experts asked the team what it would do with the leftover fish bones, Li said. “And we answered: that is exactly what our school’s next team is going to be looking into – how to handle the household waste in space.”

‘Turn waste into treasure’

As a national defense and aerospace education demonstration school, Dali attaches great importance to the cultivation of students’ scientific and technological innovation abilities and interests, particularly in aerospace knowledge.

After class, the school organizes lectures given by academicians from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and interactive events like aerospace science and technology festivals are hosted, said the school’s chemistry teacher Lai Jiajun. “At the festival, students are free to use the experimental materials provided by the school, and make some fun things from their imagination, such as air cannons, water rockets, and ‘fire palms,'” Lai introduced.

Lai is leading Dali’s three participating teams for the second ISSSP, which he said is in the local trial phase. Dali’s three teams submitted experimental project ideas on the cultivations of cucumbers and herbs, and the handling of household waste in the space station. The teams joked that the household waste project is like an “after-sales service” born from the previous marlin project, on how to deal with household waste such as fish bones.

“Space resources are limited. It would be a great idea to recycle these resources and turn household waste into treasure,” Lai told the Global Times. He shared that this project’s team has done many experiments, and their efforts included putting various food scraps in different boxes for fermentation, observing the resulting liquid or gas, analyzing their composition, and considering the possible values of recycling them.

In the days spent with the team members, Lai said he has fully felt the active thinking of these 16- and 17-year-olds, as well as their abundant enthusiasm for science.

“At the beginning, they thought that technological innovation in a large country in fields like aerospace science is something too big and far away,” said Lai. “As they continued to put forward ideas and do experiments under the project, their imagination and enthusiasm for scientific inquiry were stimulated, and they gradually felt that they could really do something for these grand topics.”

Ambitious journey commenced

“Our journey is the sea of stars!” This is an “advertising slogan” placed in prominent positions by many schools when they promote the ISSSP. It is also a very popular saying among China’s Generation Z, and a heroic vision of numerous Chinese people, especially the young, for the Chinese nation for thousands of years to further explore the vast universe.

Behind their vision is China’s rapid development of the space industry in recent years. In 2023 alone, China’s space exploration has witnessed many highlights, such as the launch of manned spaceship Shenzhou-16, the first crewed mission of the application and development stage of China’s first space station Tiangong, the milestone meeting of Shenzhou-14 and Shenzhou-15 taikonauts at the Tiangong, and the meeting of Shenzhou-16 and Shenzhou-17 crews, facilitating a space reunion for China’s six taikonauts.

Many scientists and educators shared with the Global Times that China’s young generation has more curiosity about scientific topics, a richer knowledge reserve, and a freer imagination. They noted that it is the great scientific and technological progress in various fields of the country in recent years that has given them confidence, enabling them to more actively and positively explore the world of science.

Scientist Yuan Lanfeng, associate research fellow at the Hefei National Research Center of Microscale Material Science, and deputy director of the Department of Science and Technology of Communication and Policy at the University of Science and Technology of China, is also an internet influencer popularizing science to millions of social media followers.

In an article published online in August 2022, Yuan mentioned a sharing session he had with some fifth- and seventh-graders on quantum topics.

Some of the questions the students raised during the session highly impressed Yuan: Since the quantum code cannot be cracked, what would we do if an enemy used the quantum code? The principle of a quantum computer is to use a quantum system to simulate a mathematical problem, so can we use a quantum system to simulate a physical system? Can the Chinese satellite Micius (Mozi) detect dark matter? …

“The children raised the best and deepest questions I’ve ever heard among their peers,” Yuan praised in the article.

He told the Global Times that many of his followers are young people, who not only pay much attention to topics including scientific insight in quantum and nuclear fusion, but are also interested in discussions such as “the status of China’s science and technology in the world” and “the science and technology gap between China and the US, or the respective advantages of the two countries.”

“It is good to know that the Chinese youth have a strong interest in science,” said Yuan. “It reflects China’s new generation’s better education and greater curiosity about the world, as well as the growing importance of scientific and technological innovation in China’s economic, political, and social development.”

They have witnessed China’s scientific and technological leap in recent years, and have started to plant seeds of “the sea of stars” in their hearts during their in-person practice of trying to gain a deeper understanding of the vast universe.

To explore the cosmos, developing the aerospace industry, and building China into a space power is China’s eternal dream. The dream not only provides a solid guarantee for the grand goal of the Chinese path to modernization, but also gives Chinese youth a more imaginative spirit of innovation, and a grander aspiration.

Li shared her New Year’s wishes for 2024 with the Global Times. One is to watch the launch of a Chinese spacecraft on site.

“The other wish is, that our marlins will ‘fly’ further with the taikonauts,” she smiled. “Maybe in one day, I can become a fellow traveler on the dream journey to the sea of stars.”