Saturday, April 1st, 2023 01:00:11

China’s Space Dream is getting Bigger

By Dr Ajey Lele
Updated: February 10, 2023 6:33 pm

“Fire arrows” which are known to be invented in China during the 13th century, could be viewed as the first example of China’s fore into the rocket technology and development of rockets.

Post beginning of the space age after the launch of Sputnik during 1957, one can view the development and growth of China’s space programme as a great journey form Cultural Revolution to Economic Revolution. It has been also significantly instrumental to popularise the narrative of the Rise of China. Shortly after the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Chairman Mao Zedong declared that China too should have an artificial satellite to keep up with the great powers. It is said that, Mao after his visit to Soviet Union had demanded from Chinese scientific community to build a satellite, which would be much bigger than the size of Sputnik.

Technically, China founded its space programme during 1956.  However, it took much time to launch its satellite with own rocket system. China became spacefaring state during 1970. In fact, even a programme for the launch of astronauts to space, was approved by Mao Zedong. But, was cancelled in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. He had a very pragmatic view towards making investments to the domain of space. He gave a push for increasing the focus more on practical applications than undertaking glamours missions like the human space programme. China was able to launch the first Chinese telecommunications satellite in 1984. It was ensured by China’s political and technological leadership that China first develops launch systems and sensors that could allow them to satisfy the basic needs of developing and launching heavy communication satellites and systems required for remote sensing and other applications. China began to develop its own navigation satellite system in 1994. It is famously known as a three-step, BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) strategy. BDS-1 entered service and began providing positioning services in China at the end of 2000. Presently, China’s navigational programme has a global footprint with more than 40 operational satellites for the purposes of navigation. Broadly, it could be said that at present, China has satellites of all shapes, sizes, and purposes in their inventory.

Presently, the US, Russia, ESA, and China are regarded as level one powers in the space, while the states like Japan, India and Israel could be viewed as second rung space power. China has achieved much in the domain of space in a very short period. Some major events in China’s space journey include: –

  1. Undertook the manned space flight during 2003 and have completed its space station (Tiangong) by end of 2022 which three astronauts (taikonauts) are currently staying.
  2. Moon and Mars Missions: Moon rover and lander system working on Moon surface. Change’e 5, a sample return mission (2020) is a major success. It returned with 1.731 kg of lunar regolith to earth.
  3. With 2020 Mars mission, China becomes the second nation to make a soft landing on and establish communication from the Martian surface, after the United States
  4. On July 31, 2020, President Xi Jinping announced to the world that BDS-3 was officially commissioned – a sign that BDS began to provide global services. They have given Pakistan an access to this system and are providing them military grade signals.
  5. During 2022 China conducted more than 60 rocket lift-offs in a year.
  6. Has undertaken an ASAT during 2007 and have a major counter-space programme
  7. China is the only country to launch quantum satellites and a 6G satellite.

China’s space programme is under PLA; however this does not mean that China’s investments in space are only for the defence services. Chinese leadership fully understands that economics and technology development go hand in and hand. They are also known to be using technology for upliftment of their society. In space domain, there has been much of focus on using technologies for socioeconomic purposes and for weather, commutations, and navigation needs. There is good amount of strategic rationale for China investing in the space too. Their main adversary being the US, the focus on investing in space technologies has been to counter any possible US threat. Obviously, such investments could come handy to address India challenge too. China’s main fear that, the US would have an asymmetric advantage in the military space domain, if any strategic crisis happen over Taiwan theatre or Asia Pacific region.

It is also important to note that China has major interests towards expanding its footprint over Moon and Mars. As per the US experts, there is a possibility of China militarising the Moon in coming decades. At present, China is working towards establishing a base on the Moon and wants to send its taikonauts to the Moon by 2030. Here they are possibly in the race with the US and are keen ensure that a Chinese individual reaches the Moon before the US astronaut. Possibility, this is the race happening for the technological one-upmanship between the US and China.

Presently, the US space agency NASA has conceptualised an ambitious Moon agenda under the programme Artemis. It is about returning humans to the Moon, and going beyond, with commercial and international partners. This is robotic and human Moon exploration programme started during 2017 and first uncrewed flight has already taken off during Nov 2022. Many states are supporting the US in this endeavour and have signed the Artemis accord. China and Russia are also planning to jointly build a Lunar Research Station, either on the Moon’s surface or in lunar orbit. The idea is to develop this station as a scientific base with the capability for conducting long-term autonomous operations, where lunar-based observations and various scientific experimentations would be undertaken. They are keen to have international partners for this project. China and Russia have not yet announced any definitive timeline for this project, it looks that the conflict in Ukraine could be the reason for such delay.

Is China investing in Moon and Mars programme only for the ‘glamor’ it could bring to their country or there is something more to it? There is also a talk of possible human settlements on these planets. However, the actual purpose to reach Moon and Mars is not only about the projection of technology leadership in the world, but there is something more to it. China’s Chang’e 5 mission has successfully delivered samples of lunar rock and dust to earth on Dec 17, 2020. This is the first time in 44 years that Moon rocks have been brought back to earth, since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. This has been the first successful Chinese sample return mission. At present, Chinese scientists are studying these samples. It is known that there are great amounts of mineral deposits on planets like Moon and Mars and few asteroids. Humans are already running short of mineral resources and hence presently major space powers have started their porgrammes towards space excavation and develop technologies to get the space resources back to the earth.

China’s attempts to evolve a programme to get the planetary resources back to the earth needs to be analysed at the backdrop some harsh geopolitical realities. China’s behaviour in resource rich areas like Tibet and the South China Sea (SCS) reflects a story of unilateral coercion, where it denied others their rights, established presence, and then claimed those areas as Chinese territory. Will the same story may repeat in space?   There is a strong possibility the actual motive for China to establish settlements over other planets, could be that for controlling the untapped space resources.

China has very interesting space agenda like build an artificial Moon, building of a one km long space station and few other programmes like deploying a telescope with 300 times the field of view of the Hubble in low earth orbit (LEO). Their space station can run over 1,000 experiments and they would use Tiangong space station as much a tool of diplomacy as of science. They have major interests in other areas like space solar power.

China has major extra-terrestrial ambitions too and what is been witnessed is just a beginning. They are keen to build a base at the Moon’s southern tip. It also intends to collect samples from Mars. Like NASA did with Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, China wants to test changing the orbit of a potentially hazardous asteroid with an impactor spacecraft and accurately measure how much its orbit is altered. DART partnered with a successor mission from the European Space Agency called Hera, which is due to launch in 2024 and will study the impact site in detail. China, however wants to attempt during 2025, both the impact and close observation in one shot.

What needs to be closely monitored is China’s counter-space programme. Since 2015, various official and private Chinese writings have been found debating about space warfare, including offensive and coercive usages. China has a major focus towards developing various forms of counterspace capabilities, which include both destructive and non-destructive offensive counterspace capabilities. These developments include co-orbital rendezvous operations to direct assent anti-satellite interceptors and electronic and cyber warfare.

All this indicates that China’ space programme has leapfrogged. They have multipronged space agenda from social, economic, scientific to strategic sectors. It is important for states like India to continuously keep a track of China’s fore into the space domain and design its own space policies accordingly.


By Dr Ajey Lele
(Author is a Consultant at MP-IDSA, New Delhi)

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