In Beijing, China rolls out the red carpet — and a comprehensive space plan

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This article originally appeared in the June 19, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Beijing this month hosted the Global Space Exploration Conference, GLEX 2017, an occasion which China used effectively to declare its goals for space and call for further engagement with the space community.

Hosted by the International Astronautical Federation and Chinese Society of Astronautics , the event was the perfect setting, with around 1,000 participants, including heads of agencies, industry representatives, scientists and policy makers in attendance.

There were no startling new announcements from China, but together the presentations reaffirm what is a comprehensive and cohesive vision for space activities, which have both clear direction and apparent backing at the highest levels of policy making, and display growing confidence and capabilities.

Robotic and human roadmap

China’s robotic exploration roadmap features the nation’s first independent interplanetary mission, to Mars in 2020, followed by near-Earth asteroid exploration, a mission to the Jupiter system, a Mars sample return around 2030 and a later mission to seldom-visited Uranus.

Except for Uranus, these missions have either been officially approved, are already being studied or are mentioned in key documents such as the space white paper released in December. But there are new, interesting details.

A presentation on China’s deep space plans before 2030 by Li Chunlai, deputy chief designer of the Mars 2020 mission, emphasized the Jovian moon Ganymede as a main target for the Jupiter mission, noting its potential habitability, and identifying its ice layer, topography, morphology and structure for examination.

These efforts are joined by a lunar exploration program that will be expanded beyond the Chang’e-5 sample return mission, scheduled for late November, to include at least three further probes likely to focus on the poles and possibly involving in-situ resource utilization objectives.

In human spaceflight, China remains committed to establishing a decade-long permanent presence in low Earth orbit with its Chinese Space Station. Sun Weigang, chief engineer at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), said launch of the 20-metric-ton ‘Tianhe’ core module is on track for 2019, once the 5B variant of the new Long March 5 rocket is proven and ready.

China’s first astronaut in space, Yang Liwei, at GLEX 2017. Credit: International Astronautical Federation
China’s first astronaut in space, Yang Liwei, at GLEX 2017. Credit: International Astronautical Federation

Yang Liwei, who in 2003 became China’s first astronaut to visit space on a Chinese spacecraft, revealed that 10-12 astronauts will be selected soon. China’s third astronaut class, he said, will include two women and will look beyond just air pilots in order to meet the research requirements of the Chinese Space Station.

After this, China is very much looking to the moon, with Yang stating rather vaguely that it would not be long before a program to land Chinese astronauts — or yuhangyuan — on the lunar surface receives official approval and funding, though a mission is not expected before 2030.

To this end, China is studying development of a launcher to rival the United States’ Apollo-era Saturn 5/ Tentatively named Long March 9, it has planned lift capability of 140 tons to LEO. In addition, China is developing two versions of next-generation crewed spacecraft for deep space missions. Guo Linli of the China Academy of Space Technology presented a concept for a lunar base at Sinus Iridium, with analysis of the expected Chang’e-5 samples to aid the next research steps, including generating oxygen from lunar soil.

Shen Lin, deputy chief researcher at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), revealed that the concept currently being considered for crewed lunar landings involves an Earth-orbit rendezvous following launches of a Long March 9 and a human-rated Long March 5B, before entering lunar transfer orbit.

The reaction to the plans was measured. “They’re clearly progressing in human spaceflight, and are now moving on to the Chinese Space Station,” said Kathy Laurini, a NASA senior adviser for exploration and space operations. “Looking to beyond-low-Earth-orbit exploration, they also recognize like we do that this is the next step, and it’s a worthy endeavor due to the benefits it will bring to our citizens.”

Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping with international students at the GLEX 2017 opening ceremony. Credit: International Astronautical Federation
Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping with international students at the GLEX 2017 opening ceremony. Credit: International Astronautical Federation

Calls for cooperation,
necessary competition

GLEX 2017 had opened with an address from Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao, which included the reading of a congratulatory letter from President Xi Jinping. In a call for international collaboration that would be echoed throughout the event, both from Chinese speakers and agency heads, Xi declared that China is ready to “strengthen cooperation with the international community for a better future for all humankind.”

Xi has shown his support through speaking to orbiting Chinese crews and promoting the “China space dream,” a celestial twist on his political vision . However, help is needed from elsewhere.

Cooperation is one way in which China aims to achieve its science and exploration goals, which require serious resources and innovation. Partnerships could help China in reducing overall economic costs for its increasingly broad and diverse programs, also including its Beidou guidance and navigation satellite system, weather satellites and other Earth-observation systems. It also brings political benefits at home and abroad, valuable experience and potentially new technologies that could boost its progress.

The Chinese Space Station is to be opened to payloads and even astronauts from other nations —especially developing countries where China tries to position itself as a global leader — through an agreement with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. Chang’e-4, an unprecedented lander and rover mission to the lunar far side in late 2018, will feature science payloads from Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia.

China’s partnership with the European Space Agency continues to deepen, with further cooperation on space science and the Chang’e lunar missions, and soon human spaceflight.

Karl Bergquist, ESA’s international relations administrator, explained on the sidelines of the GLEX conference that ESA and the China Manned Space Agency are working towards a detailed agreement to fly a European astronaut on the Chinese Space Station once it is completed. China is open to coordinating its lunar ambitions with the Europeans as called for by ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner’s Moon Village concept.

This underlines the major progress that China has made in a relatively short time. While the number and rate of human spaceflight missions has been low, China’s capabilities have developed rapidly to allow it to position itself as a major space power and leader.

The ultimate objective of China’s cooperation push is likely to be achieving active partnership with the clear world leader, NASA. However, the issue of technology transfer, either sanctioned or illicit, that could benefit a space program that is closely tied to China’s military, remains a clear barrier. Since 2011, U.S. law has banned NASA from engaging in bilateral agreements and coordination with its Chinese counterparts.

It was also apparent in Beijing that China understands it needs to compete in some areas.

Senior figures at CALT, the maker of the Long March family of launchers, underlined in a forum on low-cost access to space that it needs to reduce launch costs, referencing the staggering breakthroughs by U.S. private players SpaceX and Blue Origin. In reaction, CALT is researching reusability through the use of parachutes, re-startable engines and space shuttle-like horizontal landings, and examining its design, manufacture, launch site and management costs. These represent major challenges, but do not alter the fundamental plans.

A Xinhua photo showing workers during the on-orbit refueling of the Tiangong-2 space station module in April. Credit: Xinhua, NASA
A Xinhua photo showing workers during the on-orbit refueling of the Tiangong-2 space station module in April. Credit: Xinhua, NASA

Its nascent space science program has demonstrated cutting edge capabilities, and last week saw the  launch of the fourth and final mission of an initial batch, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope. Development of and studies into the next two rounds of space science projects are already underway. Wu Ji, director of China’s National Space Science Center in Beijing, stressed that now is the time for China, as a major economy and global power, to contribute to human knowledge.

Steven Eisenhart, senior vice president at the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation, said China is making steady progress establishing a diverse space program. “What we’re seeing now are plans that were laid out a long time back and are now being executed…with the progress being pretty consistent to what they’ve been saying,” he said.

While elsewhere debates over the moon and Mars continue, China’s direction for the next decade and more looks set.

With backing from the political leadership, apparent consensus among the Chinese government, scientific and other space sector actors, the country’s steady yet impressive progress should continue.