05.10.2019 Author: Valery Kulikov

Is China’s Space Programme Overly Ambitious?


It’s only natural for us, humans to explore the limits of our existence, venturing into the great unknown time and time again. Against this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that China has recently announced that it’s on the road to becoming a respectable spacefaring nation.

It’s rather fascinating that as Apollo sailed above the moon, mission control suggested that the astronauts should keep an eye out for a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o, who, according to legend, had ascended to the moon thousands of years previously, taking along a large rabbit as a companion. This was back in 1969.

As the balance of power in the world continues changing, it was a matter of time before China would make an announcement about its ambitions in space.

In preparation for the 70th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing unveiled a number of space projects to show that its prior achievements are hardly the limit. To celebrate this date, a Chinese Long March-11 rocket was successfully launched in the Gobi Desert, carrying five new remote-sensing satellites. Those satellites are bound to become a part of the Zhuhai-1 constellation of satellites in orbit, designed to facilitate the collection of a vast array of data about our planet.

For the first time, China ventured into space back in the 1950s due to assistance provided by the USSR which shared its rocket designs and expertise with Beijing. However, two decades later Beijing announced its ambition to develop its own independent space programme, with its first success being the successful launch of the Dong Fang Hong 1 satellite which was carried out in 1970. Among its latest major achievements, one is bound to mention China’s first crewed mission in 2003.

These days Chinese astronauts are actively exploring the space around Earth, with the latest launches showcasing Beijing’s ambition to become one of the world’s major powers in space exploration. At the same time, China is reluctant to disclose how much it spent on its space programme so far.

China is planning to complete its own space station around 2022, while 2025 was announced as the retirement date for the International Space Station. At the same time, Beijing is progressing rapidly with its lunnar missions, while it has already announced its ambition to explore Mars.

For this year alone the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has the goal of sending off more than 50 spacecraft on more than 30 launches. In June, Beijing managed to launch its Long March-11 rocket from a maritime launch platform. There are new advances being made in the sphere of rocket launch technology by Chinese scientists every year. As for the above mentioned modular space station, it’s planned to be built out of a core module and two experimental ones. The station is going to be supplied by a wide variety of cargo spaceships that are believed to be capable of carrying a wide array of loads.

Next year, China is going to launch its first Mars mission, which will have two science elements, namely a rover and a surface platform. In ten years, Beijing aspires to bring soil samples from Mars back to our planet, however, success of this mission will rely on its ability to construct a super heavy-duty rocket today.

China isn’t known for its ability to tame its ambitions, that is precisely why on top of its Moon and Mars missions, it’s going to launch a mission to Ganymede – a satellite of Jupiter that is believed to be the largest satellite in the solar system. At the same time, Chinese scientists are awaiting approval to launch preparations for a mission to Uranus.

China is the only country in the entire world that is capable of independently funding and implementing the most expensive of space programmes. Some twenty to thirty years ago, nobody took China seriously as capable of serious space exploration, as it was lagging far behind the well-established industry leaders – Russia and the United States. At the 64th International Astronautical Congress held in Beijing in 2013, Ryan Faith, a leading researcher of the US-based Space Foundation noted with a certain degree of regret that China’s space technology is in no way inferior to the latest American developments in the field. Moreover, in certain spheres, such as the production of cutting-edge docking mechanisms, Beijing may be well-ahead of other states.

But how could it even be possible that China managed to close the technology gap with the United States and Russia so rapidly? – The answer is fairly simple. It takes a brief period of time for the leading players to stop innovating in any field due to the absence of investments to lose a competitive edge. As new materials, equipments and technologies are being introduced into space exploration, only a country that will not make the mistake of assuming that it will be top dog forever may pull ahead of others.

But then, what does China hope to achieve by investing heavily in space exploration? Is it after bragging rights and bragging rights alone? Hardly, as it’s a well-known fact that Chinese people are highly practical and there’s a rationale to be found behind any step they take. The Great Wall of China wasn’t built for its aesthetics.

So the advancement of technology for the sake of this advancement is not the goal of CASC, which becomes evident when you learn that the creation of Chinese moon rovers was controlled by the People’s Liberation Army. The purely practical approach that is common for the Chinese mentality can be seen in Tiangong-1, a space station that was no more that a tank with a docking module, as Chinese engineers would jokingly describe it themselves. Launched in 2011, it allowed CASC to quickly refine both the docking protocols and the technologies used for docking.

China embarked on a moon exploration program back in 2007. Six years later, its first rover called Jade Rabbit landed on the surface of the Moon, delivered by the Chang’e-3 lander.

Researcher Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston believed that China’s lunar program had strategic objectives behind it as the PRC wanted to be confident that it can independently ensure its presence in lunar space, following in the wake of the US and the USSR.

Looking at the advancements China makes in its lunar research, it should be noted that on the Moon there is a thousand times more osmium, platinum, and palladium than on Earth. The Moon is rich in helium-3. However, if helium-3 is not in high demand, then an abundance of Californium opens up great prospects. The critical mass of this mineral is only 5 grams. You can imagine a battery in your pocket acting as a mini-reactor. The use of this mineral allows one to build portable nuclear power stations, but then it can be used as ammunition as its explosive capacity is equivalent to 10 tons of trinitrotoluene. Minerals such as Californium, that go for a price of 30 million dollars per one gram, will provide a return on investment for the most expensive lunar program one can imagine. It’s estimated that the delivery of one kilogram of material from the Moon today costs some 40 thousand dollars, yet it’s a thousand times cheaper to extract some of them on the Moon than on Earth.

Is it any wonder then that Beijing is planning to start mining rare earth minerals on the Moon by 2030–2035?

Chinese scientists must have calculated all the costs in advance, evaluating all the pros and cons of lunar exploration, otherwise the Celestial Empire would have never embarked on such a costly venture. Therefore, one can be confident that China has a clear purpose behind its investments in its space programme.

Today, China has four spaceports, two of which are capable of manned launches.

It is no secret that most Chinese space technology originates from the USSR. The manned space program was actually copied from the Soviet one: the Shenzhou spacecraft is similar to the Soyuz, and the spacesuits that Chinese astronauts use are similar in design to Russia’s Sokols. In the 1990s, Russia signed a package deal with China on the transfer of Soviet space technology and provided assistance when the first Chinese astronauts were to be trained, as a result of which the PRC created a ship more spacious than the Soyuz and saved itself many years and billions of dollars in research and testing.

In addition to Russia, China has been collaborating with Ukraine for years, as Kyiv took part in the development of the engines of the Long March family, the power units of which are based on the oxygen-kerosene RD-120 produced at Yuzhmash. This was revealed by reports released by WikiLeaks, although neither Kyiv, nor the Ukrainian design bureaus of Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash confirm this information. At the same time, according to media reports, Yuzhnoye is building production and residential quarters in the outskirts of Chongqing for its employees, which constitutes yet another step towards a wider collaboration with Chinese rocket builders, after selling them the technical documentation and samples of the RD-170, RD-120 and RD-9 engines.

As for US-Chinese cooperation in the sphere of space technology, it has been suspended. Formally, China does not have the right to participate in the ISS program. NASA is prohibited from working with Beijing. According to US lawmakers, American astronauts and scientists are not allowed to interact with their Chinese colleagues as this could result in a “leak.” NASA has been trying to change this situation for several years, but so far the US Congress refuses to change its stance.

However, it’s been noted by professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, John Logsdon, that many have overstated China’s recent accomplishments. He describes them as relatively modest when compared to NASA’s New Horizons mission, the first to perform a fly-by of a Kuiper Belt object, or Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission, set to land on an asteroid next month and return samples to Earth. He’s convinced that there’s nothing fundamental about China’s latest achievements, as for him the key question is how the next phase of space exploration plays out. Will China become a collaborator with other countries or continue to move forward on its own.

From the Guardian:

Experts say other countries are likely to remain cautious about collaborating with China, despite some positive steps such as the inclusion of instruments aboard Chang’e 4 developed by teams in Sweden and Germany.

“China’s reputation for stealing technology hurts chances for cooperation,” said James Lewis, senior vice-president and director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “China sees itself as competing – when they drone on about the need for win-win, it’s a sign that they think we are in a zero-sum game, where there can be only one winner.”

Because the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), oversees the majority of what China does in space, there are also concerns about China’s goal to deploy space systems to more effectively gather information than their adversaries – or block their adversaries’ ability to do the same.

However, in spite of all this, it must be noted that China has been feeling like a superpower for decades now, demanding other states to respect its power and its achievements. With its massive human, scientific and economic potential, China can make a number of rapid advancements in the sphere of space exploration. And the fact that China is not eager to cooperate with any country speaks volumes about its true capabilities.

Valery Kulikov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’