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.