China outlines intense period for human spaceflight, robotic exploration and satellite constellations

by

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

China is aiming to make significant progress on a series of major programs over the next three years.

Wu Yansheng, president of China Aerospace Science and Technology Group (CASC ) — China’s main space contractor — told a conference in Beijing in late August that over the coming three years the group will focus on construction of the Chinese Space Station, carry out the Chang’e-4 lunar far side landing and roving and Chang’e-5 sample-return moon missions, initiate a new round of lunar exploration to establish a robotic research base at the lunar south pole, launch the country’s first independent Mars mission, and begin robotic asteroid sample return and main-belt comet mission.

Of the above, the asteroid sample return and comet missions appear to be new, though no further details were offered. China has been understood to be working towards a first asteroid mission, but noted proposals include visiting three bodies, including Apophis, and finally landing on asteroid 1996 FG3.

Other projects noted in Beijing for the coming three years include the completion of the global Beidou GNSS navigation system and the China High-resolution Earth Observation System (CHEOS), both of which are regarded as crucial space infrastructure.

China is aiming to complete its global-coverage Beidou system in the first half of 2020, having already put a dozen more Beidou satellites into orbit so far this year. Beidou ends Chinese military reliance on GPS and supports various civilian applications including location, navigation, mapping and surveying.

CASC will also initiate projects to establish commercial remote sensing satellite and global mobile communication constellations in low Earth orbit, as well as high-throughput broadband communication satellites, technology test satellites and a new round of space science missions, the latter being developed under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

EXPANDING SPACE PROGRAM

CASC is demonstrably now implementing a truly comprehensive space program, pursuing a full spectrum of space capabilities, including those of deterrence through anti-satellite missiles and other programs not stated above.

“China is certainly ramping up its program in terms of both breadth and depth,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, expressing her personal views.

Much of this will fit within or help achieve wider national goals as outlined by the country’s leadership.

“Regarding the robotic research base at the lunar south pole, it is also always looking for ways to ‘get in the record books’ to demonstrate its technological leadership and one-upmanship in the Asia-Pacific region, to the dismay of Japan, South Korea and India, and for the global strategic influence that has long been associated with space ‘firsts,’ as demonstrated by the U.S. during the Cold War space-race with the Soviet Union,” Johnson-Freese notes.

The first step towards a lunar south pole station will be the Chang’e-4 lunar far side lander and rover mission which, if successful following launch from Xichang in December, will be the first ever soft-landing on the lunar far side and will likely attract widespread attention.

The Tianhe core module of the Chinese Space Station undergoing testing. Credit: CCTV/Screenshot
The Tianhe core module of the Chinese Space Station undergoing testing. Credit: CCTV/Screenshot

“What is really interesting to me is China’s interest in expanding its space science missions, which offer many opportunities for international cooperation, and perhaps for the prestige of a coveted Nobel prize. Since the Cultural Revolution, China has been better at mechanics than innovation, but that could change and consequently be a game changer internationally,” says Johnson-Freese.

SPACE STATION SCHEDULE, COOPERATION

China is aiming to launch the first module of the Chinese Space Station (CSS) in 2020, the Tianhe core module, which will then be visited by a Tianzhou cargo spacecraft followed by the Shenzhou-12 crewed mission. For this schedule to stick, a successful return-to-flight of the Long March 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle — late this year or early 2019 — is necessary. A nominal flight would clear the way for the test flight of the Long March 5B, a variant of the Long March 5 designed to loft the 20-metric-ton space station modules into low Earth orbit.

Bao Weimin of CASC stated last year that construction of the three-module CSS would require more than a dozen launches, including modules, Shenzhou and Tianzhou craft, and a co-orbiting “optical module” which can dock with the station for maintenance and repairs.

The project demands a large increase in human spaceflight mission rate; China has launched just six crewed spacecraft since Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national in space with Shenzhou 5 in 2003.

Part of the reason China is forging ahead with its own orbital facility is down to its experience with attempts at international cooperation, says Jill Stuart, an expert in the politics, ethics and law of outer space at the London School of Economics, citing how the country’s involvement in the Galileo global navigation system and desire to join International Space Station were viewed with suspicion by the United States and led to China’s subsequent exclusion from projects.

“I think this has led to them establishing their own independent activities and also to them forging relationships with other spacefaring nations in a strategic way… and most definitely shaped the development of their space activities”.

There will still be international cooperative aspects to China’s space station plans, with the China Manned Space Agency having signed agreements with the Italian Space Agency, ASI, to cooperate in human spaceflight research, and is engaging in closer ties with the European Space Agency. ESA astronauts Matthias Maurer and Sam Cristoforetti last August joined 16 Chinese counterparts for sea survival trainings off the coast of Shandong province. This cooperation could eventually see a European astronaut fly to the CSS in the second half of the 2020s.

Such cooperation will have both practical and political motivations, Stuart says. “Since the first Space Race and Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S., space has been used to shore up alliances and demonstrate political prestige.” Despite changes over the years, “space activity is still a way for countries to show their economic and technological capabilities. And cooperating in space is a way to forge diplomatic ties with other countries, and for countries to demonstrate their role in the international realm as a world leader.”

A rendering of the Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) gamma-ray burst mission China and France are jointly developing for a launch expected after 2020. Credit: CNES
A rendering of the Space Variable Objects Monitor (SVOM) gamma-ray burst mission China and France are jointly developing for a launch expected after 2020. Credit: CNES

The CSS has been opened to science payloads and experiments — especially from developing countries — through a joint scheme with the United Nations, seemingly as part of China’s continued desire to position itself as leader of developing nations. The program could also serve to portray China’s space ambitions as open and friendly, distracting from military aspects of its program.

Johnson-Freese also says cooperation will be strategic: “I have no doubt that China will pursue opportunities for cooperation in space, when it behooves them, if only in contrast with the ‘America First’ rhetoric and erratic shots at allies coming from the U.S.”

SPACE TRANSPORTATION, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

CASC, which states that it supports the country’s scientific and technological, economic and military development needs, has more than 170,000 employees working at a range of subsidiaries and institutes working on spacecraft, propulsion, launch vehicles and other areas.

Over the past six years, CASC has carried out 113 launches, sending 219 spacecraft into space. These include Shenzhou human spaceflight launches, the 2013 Chang’e-3 lunar lander and rover, Tiangong-2 space lab, and debut of new Long March 5, 6 and 7 launch vehicles.

In a space transportation roadmap released in late 2017, CASC outlined ambitious and aspirational goals including the development of reusable launch vehicles, suborbital and orbital spaceplanes and a Saturn 5-class launcher in the 2020s and 2030s, and a nuclear-powered space shuttle by 2045, as part of a plan to make China the “all-round world-leading country in space equipment and technology” by that same year.

Wu however also noted the importance of military-civilian integration. Backed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the national initiative has helped private enterprises gain access to technology required to enter and compete in the Chinese space sector, and these emerging players could bring innovation and eventually play a significant role in providing low-cost access to space and meeting demand.

One such entity, Beijing-based Landspace, said it has completed assembly of its Zhuque-1 (Vermillion Bird-1) solid-fueled launch vehicle. A successful launch early in the final quarter of 2018 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center would make it the first private Chinese rocket into orbit.

OneSpace, another Chinese startup, on Sept. 7 launched its second 10.2-meter-tall OS-X1 suborbital rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, two days after iSpace carried out its second suborbital flight from the same site.

Access to Jiuquan — one of four national launch centers — indicates a level of support from traditional space authorities in China for the emerging private launch sector that was previously unknown and has been described by one analyst as a boost for investors.

Both OneSpace and iSpace are now aiming for first orbital flights in late 2018 and the first half of 2019 respectively, which will be the major challenge for China’s private launch companies.