China’s space program made significant headway in both its manned and unmanned spaceflight efforts in 2005, experts say.

While the hallmark of China’s space effort peaked with October’s safe return of the two-astronaut crew of Shenzhou 6 — the nation’s second manned spaceflight — the country also made progress in the commercial space arena.

“You’re really seeing a maturing of their technology,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, who chairs the National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R. I . “Technically, you’re not [seeing] breakthroughs.”

But China also is nurturing cooperative space efforts with Russia and Europe in addition to its role as a partner in the European-planned Galileo satellite navigation system, Johnson-Freese added.

“They’ve really reached out toward more cooperative ventures,” she said.

In April, China launched the communications satellite Apstar 6 atop a Long March 3B rocket, marking its first commercial space shot in six years. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) also announced in July that the Nigeria Communications Satellite (NIGCOMSAT-1) — the country’s first sale of its Dongfanghong-4 communications platform to a foreign government — passed its preliminary design review stage.

“In one swoop, we get a foreign commercial [satellite] sale, and it is the most indigenously developed and most advanced Chinese communications satellite,” Dean Cheng, a China space specialist for CNA Corp., a think tank in Arlington, Va., said in a telephone interview.

Human spaceflight advances

By all accounts, China’s Shenzhou 6 mission marked a step forward for the nation’s manned spaceflight effort.

The five-day mission, which launched Chinese astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng into orbit on Oct. 12 Beijing time, built on China’s success with Shenzhou 5 and proved the spacecraft’s integrity as a multi day vehicle.

Shortly after the Shenzhou 6 landing, Chinese space officials announced that Shenzhou 7 would fly in 2007, carry three astronauts and include the nation’s first spacewalk.

“Officially, they still have this three-step plan,” Johnson-Freese said. “I always find it interesting when we get to a new level.”

That plan includes launching astronauts into orbit, setting up an initial laboratory and developing a larger station. According to state media reports, China’s Shenzhou 6 mission cost about 900 million yuan ($110 million) from the 19 billion yuan spent on its manned spaceflight program.

The country also plans to launch its first lunar probe, the unmanned Chang’e orbiter, in 2006 with landers and sample return flights slated to follow. By 2020, according to Chinese space officials, the country is aiming for a manned Moon mission.

Commercial progress

China also launched a new mapping telescope aboard the Beijing-1 spacecraft, which was launched by a Kosmos 3M rocket with several other spacecraft.

Beijing-1 — also known as Disaster Monitoring Constellation-4 — will provide 4-meter resolution. Among other uses, Chinese planning officials intend to use the satellite imagery as they prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

But Cheng sees the progress on NIGCOMSAT-1 as one of the most interesting developments for China’s space program.

The satellite’s sale and development opens up the possibility of China’s role as a spacecraft and launch service provider, especially in the light of technology transfer restrictions with U.S.-built satellites under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

“I think it is a step, not a big [one], but a first step toward that direction,” Cheng said of NIGCOMSAT-1.

In November, Venezuela also tapped China to build the satellite “Simon Bolivar,” named after a South American revolutionary, under an agreement that included technology transfer between the two countries, according to wire reports.

Meanwhile, European aerospace firms like Alcatel Alenia Space are now offering ITAR-free satellites, built without any U.S. components, to work around the restrictions. Alcatel built Apstar 6, for example, as an ITAR-free spacecraft and in December pledged to build Chinasat 6B — a telecommunications satellite for China Satellite Communications Corp. — in the same manner.

“With the Europeans now advertising satellites that are ITAR free, you could get more interest in commercial launches in China,” Johnson-Freese said. “It is not a matter of China not reaching out.”