WASHINGTON — The heads of the U.S. and Chinese civil space agencies will exchange visits next year to discuss potential cooperation in space exploration, including human spaceflight, according to a U.S.-China joint statement issued Nov. 17.

The statement came as U.S. President Barack Obama was wrapping up his official state visit to Beijing Nov. 15 to 18 for talks with Chinese President HuJintao. In the statement, the two sides pledged to expand cooperative ties in a number of areas, including space, civil aviation, agriculture and health.

“The United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit,” said the statement, which was posted on the White House Web site. “Both sides welcome reciprocal visits of the NASA Administrator and the appropriate Chinese counterpart in 2010.”

In 2006, then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin traveled to China, marking the first such official visit by the head of the U.S. space agency. While in Beijing, Griffin told reporters that proliferation concerns continue to constrain NASA’s interaction with its Chinese counterpart and that any collaboration on human spaceflight projects would have to happen “well down the road.” Still, the visit produced an agreement that NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) would talk at least once a year. By mid-2008, NASA and CNSA had established working groups for space science and space-based climate research, but the two nations have not undertaken any joint missions. Although China is one of three countries capable of independently launching people into space — the others are the United States and Russia — it is not a participant in the international space station program.

While Obama was in China, a U.S. State Department official here sounded a less hopeful note about U.S.-Chinese space cooperation, saying the United States remains concerned about China’s efforts to develop anti-satellite capabilities. “The United States believes that China must provide greater transparency regarding its intentions for development, test and deployment of a multinational counter-space program,” Richard Buenneke, the State Department’s deputy director for space policy in the Office of Missile Defense and Space Policy, said during a Nov. 17 seminar on trans-Atlantic space cooperation at  George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here. “In addition to considering general measures for spaceflight safety, any discussion on the future use of space must directly address the source of mistrust.”

Buenneke said China’s unannounced test of a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon in January 2007 that destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite was a military action that generated over 2,750 pieces of orbiting space junk.

“The debris cloud created by this intentional act means that China is now responsible for more debris in low Earth orbit than any other country,” he said. “The debris will pose a hazard to human spaceflight and satellites well into the 22nd Century.”

Buenneke said the United States believes that any decision by China to conduct another intentionally destructive anti-satellite test would further undermine the credibility of China’s statements against weaponizing space. He also said senior Chinese government officials made private assurances to the United States last year that China will not be conducting future anti-satellite tests.

“This commitment by China is an important step forward, and we expect China to live up to its word,” he said.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...