China in Space

One of many satellite launches for China.  What's the plan?

One of many satellite launches for China. What’s the plan?

According to numerous reports, China is expected to launch Chang’E 3 to the Moon on or about December 1.  Unlike previous Chinese lunar missions, it is designed to soft-land a rover and other experiments on the Moon’s surface.  Chang’E 3 is a relatively large vehicle, with a mass of over 3600 kg.  Details on the payload and its objectives are limited but by gleaning through the available information, it appears configured to explore and survey a region of the near side maria in Sinus Iridum, an area of Mare Imbrium on the northwestern near side of the Moon.

The Chinese space program has been making continuous and significant strides, conducting a variety of manned and unmanned missions in low Earth orbit and beyond with multiple launches every year.  Aiming to identify a unifying theme, many western observers have tried making sense of the sequence of missions and what each might seek to accomplish.  Are they engaged in some type of competition?  What important national objectives do the Chinese pursue with their space program and what does this mean for the U.S. space program, the space efforts of other countries and possibly, our national security?  Exactly what is China attempting to accomplish in space?

A program of communications, remote sensing, weather monitoring – the space-based applications undertaken to date by the military-run Chinese space program – is now being extended to a new range of activities in new areas, specifically lunar robotic exploration and human missions to low Earth orbit.  Some have concluded that the Chinese space program is their attempt to duplicate the visible accomplishments of other space powers such as the United States and Russia.  In this view, there is no wider significance to China’s human orbital and space station efforts; satellites serve the same purposes for all nations and China merely wants to achieve parity with other space faring countries.

However, there is another way to view the Chinese space program.  Perhaps there is a logical pattern in which their space activity relates to a central theme.  What could that theme be?  Let us examine some recent Chinese space and terrestrial activities and see if a pattern, if any, emerges from this kaleidoscope of events.

Over three years ago (October 2010), China launched the Chang’E 2 mission to orbit the Moon.  For over a year, this spacecraft mapped the Moon from a relatively low (100 km) orbit, obtaining a global high-resolution image map, a topographic map from laser altimetry, a microwave radiometer to study the configuration of the upper surface, and geochemical instruments to measure the surface composition.  All of these investigations were apparently successful, although little in the way of scientific results has emerged from the mission data.  Some publicly released data has been posted on the Internet, but detailed, supporting information needed for scientific work is either relatively inaccessible or has not been released.

Interestingly, after Chang’E 2 completed its lunar global mapping mission, the spacecraft left lunar orbit and was guided to the Sun-Earth L-2 libration point (the “gravity neutral” zone located on the Sun-Earth line about 1.5 million km from Earth, well beyond the Moon).  The spacecraft remained at this location for almost a year, then in December 2012, it was sent to fly past the near-Earth asteroid Toutatis, obtaining a number of detailed images of its surface.  The Chang’E 2 spacecraft is currently in solar orbit.  This mission clearly demonstrated Chinese capability to navigate and operate throughout cislunar space and beyond.

The infamous 2007 Chinese test of satellite interception and destruction left a significant amount of dangerous debris in low Earth orbit.  Despite worldwide condemnation, China continues to develop and test anti-satellite (ASAT) technologies and procedures.  A new series of ASAT functions were tested by China with the launch last July of the Chuang Xin-3 (Innovation-3), the Shi Yan-7 (Experiment-7) and Shi Jian-15 (Practice-15) satellites.  These three satellites, launched simultaneously on a single Long March 4C rocket, proceeded to conduct a series of orbital maneuvers, including proximity operations, close flybys and rendezvous.  The Shi Jian-15 was apparently configured with a robotic manipulator arm, similar to the Canada arm used on the Space Shuttle to grapple and handle large payloads and spacecraft.  Collectively, this mission demonstrated several different capabilities related to in-space repair and operations, as well as anti-satellite operations.  In addition, one satellite transferred to a high apogee orbit, consistent with travel to the high orbits associated with important surveillance, positioning and communication satellites.

In recent months, China has asserted national proprietary rights over large regions of air space over the South China Sea, claiming it as a national “air control zone.”  On several occasions, they have scrambled jet interceptors to track and monitor air traffic in this zone.  Note that this new claim is not the same as an “air defense zone,” which seeks to identify flight traffic to and from a nation for defense awareness purposes.  Instead, this air control designation requires aircraft to identify themselves and disclose their flight plans, regardless of destination.  It is a unilateral assertion of national sovereignty over international air space.

Next up for China is the launch of Chang’E 3.  As mentioned above, this mission is apparently the first in a series of increasingly sophisticated and advanced lunar robotic explorations, ultimately leading to the collection and retrieval of lunar samples for return to Earth.  Flight-qualification of the large and robust lander by the Chang’E 3 mission will provide a system and space experience directly relevant to future robotic and human missions to the Moon.

This is quite a laundry list of disparate events and activities.  Is there any connection?  Perhaps not, but I sense a consistent pattern of nationalistic striving to advance technology, science and Chinese national interests.  The common thread in all these events is “space control.”  Simply stated, this term means the projection of power in space to serve national interests.  Space control is not necessarily synonymous with space warfare, although it is not excluded in the term.  In brief, space control includes the launch and placement of assets in certain places, at certain times, in order to accomplish important objectives.  These objectives can include the protection of one’s own assets and the denial of assets to potential adversaries.  Space control includes situational awareness, the collection of data and intelligence, the projection of capabilities, and the disabling of the space assets of others.

All of these missions, technologies and activities are necessary if China’s long-range goal is to dominate cislunar space – the volume of space between Earth and Moon, where virtually all of our economic and national security satellites reside.  China has been developing the capability to move freely (and at will) throughout this zone and has been conducting proximity operations there, including both the repair and the destruction of space vehicles.  By simultaneously pursuing all of these space activities, they are rapidly developing into a major space power.  As these efforts currently remain unchallenged by any other nation or group of nations, it is highly likely that in coming years China will be the dominant space faring power.  While I accept (for the moment) that their intentions may be mostly benign, that could change quickly.  History suggests that such changes come rapidly and often unexpectedly.

In any event, what does it say about American leadership in space that so many prefer to put their heads in the sand and ignore or deny this disquieting series of developments?  It does not require either imminent or distant hostilities to recognize the possible dangers of having one power dominate such a vital field of endeavor – particularly a political power with a mixed record of sympathies to the western values of democracy and economic freedom.

Going to the Moon and developing cislunar space may not seem to be very important to some – it clearly isn’t to the current leadership of NASA.  Prior to October 4, 1957, orbiting a satellite around the Earth wasn’t seen as very important either.

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25 Responses to China in Space

  1. Pingback: China in Space | Leading Space

  2. So far China appears to be pursuing a slow but progressive pioneering space program that could give them a space station at LEO and landings on the Moon by the 2020s.

    Chinese space scientist have repeatedly stated their interest in exploiting the Moon’s natural orbital position around the Earth and its resources for energy production. And their growing economic influence over many poorer members of the UN– especially in Africa– could allow them to influence the interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty strongly in their strategic and economic favor.

    The US, on the other hand, has spent the last 40 years squandering its technological lead in manned space travel by first decommissioning its ability to travel beyond LEO back in the early 1970s and, more recently, by stopping research on the development of a manned lunar lander under the Obama administration over the past few years.

    Its time for Congress to step up once again during the vacuum of leadership at NASA– because of President Obama’s lack of interest in the agency. Its time for Congress to prioritize the funding of the development of a reusable extraterrestrial landing vehicle for the Moon, the moon’s of Mars, and possibly even for the surface of Mars (if a heat shield and ballute or hypercone are added to the standard single stage reusable vehicle).

    There’s no doubt in my mind that the nation or nations that technologically dominates the exploitation of the polar ice resources of the Moon will dominate the rest of the solar system both strategically and economically. America has to be willing to aggressively invest in its economic future on the Moon if this nation is to avoid slowly impoverishing itself during the rest of this century. Exploiting lunar resources is the major key for a nation’s strategic and economic progress in space. China already realizes this!

    Marcel F. Williams

    • Chris Castro says:

      The Tiangong space platform appears to be much more of an orbital target vehicle, rather than a full-up space station. The Tiangong structure, to me, resembles the Agena target vehicle, which was used during the Gemini program, in the 1960’s. Sure, it has some expanded characteristics, making it akin to a second docking spacecraft——-but this would make great sense, from the idea of developing the capability of linking up trans-lunar vehicles in a parking orbit.
      Project Constellation had in its flight-plan, an earth-orbit-rendezvous phase, of the docking together of the main cis-lunar/lunar-orbit craft with the specialized lunar landing craft (which was in turn, linked up with an earth escape stage). If China simply skips over the whole pointless imitation-of-the-ISS exercise, and limits its LEO activity to just a basic, intermittently-occupied, Skylab-like-but-perhaps-smaller station, then it could move on to the point where its Shenzou craft could rehearse a linkage with a near-viable cislunar-bound spacecraft. Hence, an Apollo 9-like mission. Then the Chinese would be ready for a manned circumlunar flight——-either a flyby or an orbital mission to the Moon.

  3. gbaikie says:

    The space environment is critically important to the US in terms of military significant and the Congress spends money on it, according to this importance it’s assume to have.

    In terms of money rather than blue ocean navy, the money spend military space operations is rather minor. Likewise, rather than spending much money on a blue ocean navy, money spent on military space related activities makes far more economic sense.

    It was similar story in terms of battleships vs aircraft carriers prior to WWII.
    So I generally see China interest in space, as something they can afford to do- both in terms
    military and civilian type operations.
    For the US civilian and military related activity [though probably more weight on civilian aspects]
    was good for country in terms education and innovation. So with Chinese a civilian space program
    can do equally as much in inspiration and focus in regard to education. Or this aspect alone could
    worth the relativity small amount money China is spending on civilian space.
    Not do you have internal national dialogue regarding space exploration, but by engaging in this
    activity, you get a dialogue of chinese with rest world who are engaged in space exploration.

    Or it particularly makes no sense for a country with second highest level of GDP, not to be
    engage in civilian as well and military aspects of space.
    Just as it hard to grasp why the US doesn’t take much interest in civilian space exploration.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      You are projecting a western — and somewhat artificial — value system on the Chinese space program by distinguishing “civilian” from “military.’ They do not make such a distinction; they have one space program and I tried to show here that all these different threads might connect, if the unifying theme is cislunar presence and (eventually), dominance.

      While we make much about the “civilian” nature of our space program, in fact, military and civilian purposes in space have always been more closely joined than many would care to acknowledge.

  4. Warren Platts says:

    You know, a 100,000 unit Brilliant Pebbles swarm manufactured and launched from the Moon would save a lot in terms of launch costs….

  5. Joe says:

    Another interesting point to watch will be configuration of the ECLSS/Thermal systems of the pressurized module(s) of their upcoming LEO space station (when and if such information becomes available).

    Originally the modules for what eventually became the American portion of the ISS were to be capable of being configured to serve as Command/Habitation modules for BEO activities and even be used as lunar surface base modules. These requirements were eventually stripped from the program for reasons both financial and political.

    Will the Chinese module design have the kind of capabilities originally planned for the American modules?

  6. William Mellberg says:

    One can almost hear China’s leader, Xi Jinping, saying …

    “We have had our failures, Comrades. But so have others. To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in human spaceflight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.”

    “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the schools. Technical institutions will reap the harvest of these gains.”

    “Our space effort, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new enterprises, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel.”

    “To be sure, all this costs a good deal of money. For we have given this program a high national priority — even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not know now what benefits await us.”

    “Our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for respect and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all people, and to become the world’s leading spacefaring nation.”

    “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not. It is one of the great adventures of all time. And no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the conquest of space.”

    “Comrades … we choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpose, and one we intend to win — and the others, too.”

    But these are not the words of President Xi Jinping. They are (with a few small changes) the words of President John Kennedy speaking at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

    The Chinese looked at President Kennedy’s leadership and learned from it. True to the goal he set, the United States became “the world’s leading spacefaring nation” and reaped the rewards he envisioned half a century ago. The Chinese have seen the many returns our investments in space research and exploration have generated.

    What a pity that President Obama has squandered that leadership — leadership that was paid for with blood, toil, tears and sweat (as well as good old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity).

    What a shame that we are letting another nation (China) catch up and move ahead.

    China isn’t repeating what America did many years ago.

    China is picking up where we left off … and moving forward.

    “Forward.” That was Barack Obama’s campaign slogan last year.

    But as far as keeping America the “world’s leading spacefaring nation,” Barack Obama is taking America backward. Back (as you suggest, Dr. Spudis) to 1957.

  7. Joe says:

    The Chang’e-3 is on its way. Video of the launch is at the link.

  8. James says:

    Looking at orbital element data, neither Xin-3, the Shi Yan-7 nor Shi Jian-15 transferred to a high “apogee” orbit. Shi Jian-15 changed its inclination by .4 deg, but the altitudes of each are no higher than 705 km (their launch altitude was 680 km). Also, unlikely any of the vehicles got close enough to grapple/dock/rendezvous with each other. All it really looks like Shi Jian-15 did was a more or less a flyby of Xin-3 at between 1.2 km and 2 km for 8 minutes. Approaching an older Chinese satellite, though, Shi Jian-15 was able to get as close as .94 km to 3 km for up to 2 days!

  9. Stan says:

    The Chinese space program makes perfect sense… First you develop the rocket for LOE, satellites, then manned flight, then you develop a space stations from which to launch manned missions to the moon at the same time you develop lunar landing capability and recon your landing sites. Then you move to manned space station and system to launch and land men on the moon for the purpose of developing a colony that can mine and use the moons resources. Next will be expansion into the rest of the solar system. Nice and neat, systematic approach to exploiting (ooo bad word.. in the west) the resources of the solar system.

    • JohnG says:

      Gee, that sounds a lot like the Von Braun/Clarke approach from the 1950s. Maybe the Chinese are reading those classics. Clearly the US is not.

      • JohnG says:

        “The first lunar explorers will probably be mainly interested in the mineral resources of their new world, and upon these its future will very largely depend. If we are to set up permanent colonies, it is essential to discover oxygen, water, and materials from which food may be obtained.” . . . Arthur C. Clarke, 1951, ‘The Exploration of Space’

        It will be interesting to see how quickly the Chinese shift their emphasis away from Sinus Iridum towards the lunar poles. The Russians (if they really do what they say they are going to do) already have the poles and the polar resources in their sights for their robotic missions beginning in 2017 or 2018.

        It’s interesting that Clarke used “new world” to describe the Moon. The Europeans referred to the Americas as the “New World”. It turns out that the Moon’s surface area is about 90% of the surface area of North and South America combined. New World indeed. However, the Moon is mostly a desert really, no lush vegetation there. The lunar poles are the Oases for life, but the locations of enhanced sunlight on the polar crater rims or hills are few and far between. Those that get there first will have a tremendous advantage over the others.

  10. Warren Platts says:

    I told you so! lol!

    “PLA dreams of turning moon into Death Star, says expert”

  11. Warren Platts says:

    Well, it was meant as a joke–the article’s from a Taiwanese rag with a definite axe to grind. Guess it wasn’t too funny.

    That said, material and energy resources can be used for good or ill. The eventual goal is manufacturing. Right?

    Therefore, it stands to reason that if China had a monopoly on lunar manufacturing, they could just as easily use that capability to manufacture weapons of war as well as for constructing gigaginormous platforms for broadcasting ever more reruns of Duck Dynasty.

    Of the various, old, SDI proposals, probably Brilliant Pebbles had the best chance to live up to the promise of full-spectrum dominance of cislunar space. But to make that happen would have required a constellation of around 100,000 units, according to the old literature. Thus, the cost would run into the trillions of USD–a large part of which was launch costs.

    Hence the push for cheap access to space, a la SSTO Delta Clipper–and dare I say, Clementine. You can say what you want about the old SDIO, but they weren’t stupid. Neither is the PLA….

    • Paul Spudis says:

      the article’s from a Taiwanese rag with a definite axe to grind

      Except that the article is quoting someone within the Lunar Exploration Group of the PLA. Unless this idea is made up whole cloth, someone in China thinks this way.

      I think that we have much more to worry about with cislunar space control, of which the Moon is a part, but not the whole thing. The Chinese could set up manufacturing on the Moon tomorrow, but the only “monopoly” they would have would be by virtue of our absence there. On the other hand, a cislunar space control monopoly is a real monopoly because they can take out other countries’ assets at will.

    • Its against international law (Outer Space Treaty) to put weapons of mass destruction on the lunar surface. Of course, since libertarians here in the states often talk about the US pulling out of the treaty– I guess China could too if it served their national interest.

      But I wouldn’t be too surprised if nuclear missiles do end up on the lunar surface a few decades from now– under international control– since it would be easier and probably safer to launch a nuclear missile to deflect a potentially dangerous asteroid from the lunar surface than from the Earth.


  12. Stan says:

    Weapons on the moon, wait the moon already has lots of weapons all it lacks is the delivery system. A large rock shot from the moon to earth would have a much greater affect than a hydrogen bomb. And there is no radiation to worry about. We should worry that someone in China read ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’. Just something to think about…if you are truly paranoid.

  13. Joe says:

    The Chang’e-3 has deployed the rover.

    The rover is called Yutu.

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