China's space program poised to surge


Senior Member
Oct 27, 2009
China's space program poised to surge

China's space program is poised to surge ahead at a brisk pace in 2010. In fact, over the next 12 months, China's activities in space may be such that when all is said and done, 2010 could well rank as one of China's top years thus far in terms of the total number and variety of missions launched.

Part of the reason for this is the sense, created by reports that two or three major Chinese space programs are running behind schedule, that China has some catching up to do. This might help to explain the rapid sequence of launches of the Yaogan VII and Yaogan VIII remote sensing satellites by China last month.

After 2009, which is best described as relatively uneventful with

the exception of the successful completion of the Chang'e-1 lunar mission last March and the dual Yaogan launches, 2010 could prove to be exciting for observers of China's space program.

At the same time, a very important chapter will be unfolding behind the scenes, involving the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC, aka CASTC) and what amounts to an ongoing attempt to fundamentally change China's space technology industrial base.

CASC, one of China's two main group corporations that produce the nation's satellites and launch vehicle technology for both the civilian and military space programs, is undergoing another round of reorganization, consolidation, and marketization, according to Eric Hagt, China program director at the World Security Institute in Washington DC. He says it could "lead to a major shakeup of the industry with far-reaching consequences for China's ability to innovate, market and generally advance" its space program.

"The more important issue that is increasingly being discussed is an organizational one. As China's space program expands in size and breadth, the lines of authority for dual-use satellites, their applications, the dynamic between the many agencies participating in and competing for various directions in the space program are becoming problematic, judging by the growing concern amongst academics and scientists in the space community," said Hagt.

In terms of steady progress in China's manned space program, Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Temple") will be launched in late 2010, putting in place the first portion of China's planned space laboratory in low-earth orbit. Although Tiangong-1 will be deployed in space, no actual manned missions will reach this new outpost in space until next year. Still, this will be a very significant event, according to Hagt.

"China's manned space program will make the initial installment of putting a permanent 'man-able' station in space. Up to this point, China's manned voyages into space have been successful but transient," said Hagt. "Building a permanent presence in space has been a longstanding goal of China and is more than just another step in its program. It has the important symbolic value of staking a claim in low-earth orbit and illustrates China's permanent interests and claims to develop and exploit space along with other space-faring powers."

China has made it clear for months that successful completion of all work on the Tiangong-1 and the Shenzhou-8 manned capsule, along with a new Long March 2F launch vehicle, is the top priority. Tiangong-1's launch must proceed on time because China's historic first docking in space depends upon it. That will take place when Shenzhou-8 is launched in early 2011.

"It is always difficult to predict the potential success of the Chinese in meeting their timelines, as they often - even usually - deliberately blur their deadlines," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the National Security Decision Making Department at the US Naval War College. "It is an Asian cultural thing so as not to 'lose face' - with very real ramifications for the jobs of program managers - if deadlines are not met.

"Tiangong-1, their 8.5 ton space laboratory module, is still scheduled for launch in 'late 2010' for a potential first rendezvous with Shenzhou 8 in 2011. That will be an important step forward in the second phase of their official three-phase space plan."

According to Hagt, although 2010 was supposed to be a big year for China's Beidou-2 ("Compass") navigation satellite program as well, with 10 to 12 new Beidou-2 system satellites planned for launch by the end of the year, "that is probably not going to happen because of the technical difficulties which China reported in 2009".

"The Beidou-2 system will be another highly significant evolution in China's ability to rapidly launch and operate a complex system in space," said Hagt. "Moreover, it will provide China an independent positioning/navigation capability that may have significant impact on commercial navigation and will certainly have a large strategic impact as China reduces its vulnerability through dependence on GPS." GPS, or Global Positioning System, is the US-based global navigation satellite system.

China also plans to launch another advanced FY-3B (Fengyun series) weather satellite in 2010, and the first in a new generation of the HY-2 ocean survey or maritime surveillance satellites (Haiyang series), said Hagt.

As part of a highly successful lunar program, the Chang'e-2 lunar probe will go up in late 2010, preparing the way for a moon landing by Chang'e-3 at a later date.

"While the media hype has focused on China's Shenzhou manned missions, its lunar program is progressing well. Another lunar orbiter will be followed soon after by China's first unmanned lunar landing, though not in 2010, the significance of which has yet to be felt," said Hagt.

All eyes will be on the status of construction work at China's new space launch center on Hainan Island - the future home base for China's massive Long March 5 (LM-5) launch vehicle, among other things - which finally got underway last September. It is scheduled for completion by 2013 and will be activated by 2015.

Work on the LM-5 itself is running slightly behind schedule.

"As for the LM-5, the main engine underwent its first integrated test which was successful. The first stage feasibility plan and design is reportedly essentially complete and the second stage will enter preliminary research and development stage in 2010. The overall plan appears to have the LM-5 ready around the same date - 2014 - that the Hainan launch complex will be completed," said Hagt. "The remaining Shenzhou missions appear to have slipped in their schedule for launch, as has the overall lunar program with the delay of the LM-5 development."

"Right now though, the LM-5 is still scheduled to be operational in 2014. How 'operational' will be defined remains to be seen," said Johnson-Freese.

Despite its growing list of achievements in space, Hagt contends that "China has still not made its mark in the international arena."

"This applies to its failure to widely tap the international space launch and satellite technology market. But major cooperative efforts have also fizzled. The termination of China's participation in Galileo [the European satellite navigation system] is a case in point. China's cooperation with Russia on space exploration has been delayed and is generally anemic," said Hagt. "But it must also calculated in terms of exclusion to major international space efforts such as the International Space Station. Whatever the reasons (political, economic, strategic), space programs are undoubtedly hallmarks of great-nation status and China's failure to overcome them must ultimately be seen as a problem."

It should be noted that China is seeking to expand its ties in space with Brazil, and has recently added Laos and Bolivia to its list of nations involved in projects with China involving satellite communications. Venezuela and Nigeria are already on that list.

In 2010, the possibility that a framework will somehow emerge which will enable cooperation in space between the US and China seems less remote. There are, for example, formal visits to each country scheduled in 2010 by the heads of each nation's space program. These visits were announced during US President Barack Obama's visit to China last November, and they are viewed as positive but not spectacular developments by many close observers of the process.

"The United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space cooperation based on the
principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit," said the joint statement issued during Obama's visit.

Johnson-Freese said: "As far as expanding space cooperation between the US and China, objections have been from those who you would expect objections from - largely analysts and commentators who object to any cooperation with China in any area - but so far there has been no unexpected or likely prohibitive outcry. At least no Congressional hearings have been scheduled, yet."

The fact that the Obama administration is placing considerable emphasis on the need to initiate a formal program with China in the area of space science in particular is adding to the sense that longstanding barriers might be overcome.

"This will give the US an opportunity to learn the mechanics of working with the Chinese and them with us, before progressing to areas like human spaceflight. This is a very smart move," said Johnson-Freese. "It keeps expectations low, and minimizes the impact of those who employ inflated fears of 'technology transfer' as a reason not to work with China. But, inflating risks for political reasons will always occur."

Hagt sees the establishment of some form of joint relationship in space as inevitable.

"China has always been receptive to the idea, and perhaps currently the US has increasingly warmed to the idea," said Hagt. "So perhaps Obama will be the [former US president Richard] Nixon of space relations and finally end the impasse."

After the recent climate summit in Copenhagen, where China objected so strenuously to any form of satellite-based environmental monitoring, experts are being compelled to rethink China's degree of receptivity in this regard.

"Scientific exchange, perhaps deep-space exploration are possibilities. But sharing of environmental monitoring data for disaster and humanitarian relief purposes is more pressing and a logical place to begin," said Hagt. "Still, space remains dominated in both countries by a strategic perspective, and suspicion between the two dominates the view of one another in space. There has not been much change here of late. I suspect the two are moving inexorably toward some form of accommodation in space, something that will offer symbolic and political points, but not much beyond that."

In other words, until overall relations improve and until specifically military-to-military relations warm considerably, there is little if any hope that relations in space specifically will improve.

According to Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, who published a report, "October Surprises In Chinese Aerospace" on December 30, the expanding space mission of China's People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular and the fact that the US is still unclear about what is unfolding may prove to be huge obstacle here because it is readily apparent now that, among other things, "it is China's intention to build a level of air and space power to match or even exceed that of the US," said Fisher.

"In addition to official statements, articles in the Chinese and pro-Beijing Hong Kong press have commented on the new PLAAF strategy and have sought to justify China building military power in space," said Fisher. "One early result of these revelations is the possibility that the US has underestimated a key future Chinese military capability, compounding that error by using it to help justify a momentous policy decision."

Thanks to a PLA officer who first brought it to his attention in 2004, Fisher has been tracking an intense debate over who should exercise control over China's military space program. This involves the PLAAF, the Second Artillery Force - which controls China's conventional and strategic missiles - and the General Armaments Department of the Central Military Commission, which leads the development of space systems and controls China's unmanned and manned space activities.

"The PLAAF is certainly eager to justify a new space mission," said Fisher. "Another important implication of the PLAAF's adoption of the 'integration of air and space' may be that it has won an apparent long-running debate over which service will be responsible for military space or even space combat missions."

This recent statement by PLAAF Commander General Xu Qiliang has made the whole topic even more complicated because it was so quickly revised and amended by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

"Considering the [present] global trend of new revolution in military affairs, competition among armed forces is moving toward the space-air domain and is extending from the aviation domain to near space and even deep space. Such a 'shift' represents an irresistible trend, such an 'expansion' is historically inevitable, and such development is irreversible. In a certain sense, having control of space and air means having control of the ground, the seas and oceans, and the electromagnetic space, which also means having the strategic initiative in one's hands… In the face of the particular nature of competition for expanding the domains of space and air, the people's air force must establish a concept of space-air security, of space-air-related interests, and of space-air development that advance with the times," said Xu.

By amending it so rapidly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry simply focused everyone's attention on this statement.

"China's possible intention to develop new counter-space weapons may have been displayed at a new PLAAF 60th Anniversary pavilion at the China Aviation Museum outside Beijing. A Chinese Internet source image of a wall mural picture of a four-engine aircraft with a nose-mounted laser devise attacking a satellite was likely part of this display," said Fisher. "A recent Chinese article reports China Strategy Institute member Jiang Feng saying the 'next step' of the [PLAAF] is to 'focus' on 'developing assassin' satellites, laser interceptor satellites, etc.' This report also states [that the PLAAF] is currently also working hard to develop a new model orbital bomber."

As the US attempts to forge closer ties with China in space, this important and changing PLAAF role needs to be better understood over the coming year. For example, how the PLAAF might work together with and exert influence over a restructured CASC is open to question. It is hard to believe that given the nature of the Chinese space program, these are unrelated or that PLAAF/CASC interaction is minimal.

"Calls for a truly independent space authority - more akin to NASA [the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] - that can vie for funding, political priority, and the ability to properly organize various civilian projects is an idea that is gaining currency, although the politics of space in China is no less complex than in the US with the military dominating much of it and a plethora of civilian and academic bodies with a stake," said Hagt.

Asia Times Online :: China News, China Business News, Taiwan and Hong Kong News and Business.

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