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#SpaceWatchGL Opinion: China’s Space Goals and Capacity

By Dr. Namrata Goswami

Credits: Imaginechina/Corbis

China under President Xi Jinping is aimed at establishing global leadership across domains, be it land, sea, air, cyber, and space. This grand strategic approach can be discerned from its prioritization of technologies that upgrade its civilian and military capacities across domains, through its new infrastructures’ list. In this list, besides Artificial Intelligence (AI) and satellite internet, the development of overall space capacities is highlighted, as of critical importance. Such policy statements have been followed by demonstration of capacities across Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO), Cislunar space (the space between the Earth and the Moon), deep space (Mars) and asteroid exploration and exploitation.

The Chinese White paper on space (2016) clearly articulated that the Communist Party of China (CPC) views space as vital for economic development and national security, for peaceful utilization and for its role in the development of missiles, atomic and hydrogen bombs. The purpose and vision of China’s space development as articulated in that 2016 White Paper were “to meet the demands of economic, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to improve the scientific and cultural levels of the Chinese people, protect China’s national rights and interests, and build up its overall strength…to build China into a space power in all respects, with the capabilities to make innovations independently”.

Based on such clear policy direction on why China should spend its resources on space development, what are some of China’s discernible space goals, and what space capacities is China investing in (2021-2050) to meet some of those goals?

Space Goals and attendant Space Capacity

First Goal: Permanent Space Presence in LEO and the Moon

Image: China’s Xinhua News Agency

One of the articulated goals of China is to develop permanent presence in LEO and the Moon. The grand strategic thinking behind this goal is to ensure that China is able to create access paths for itself especially because the nature of space is changing; from prestige missions to economic returns on investments and real-time support for military space missions through the development of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Space contributes to China’s national wealth and military power projection. Chinese space policy makers view the Earth Moon zone as capable of returning $10 trillion annually by 2050. This perspective is based on assessment made about lunar resources like water-ice, Helium 3, iron ore, silicon, titanium. In an interview with National Science Review (2019), Chinese lead lunar scientists, Wu Weiren and Ouyang Ziyuan, specified the potential benefits of lunar resources like Helium 3 to concepts like nuclear fusion reaction and overall industrial development of China. Consequently, by 2049, China aspires to dominate in space, by establishing large permanent structures in LEO, and co-developing with Russia, a permanent structure on the South Pole of the Moon (research station).

Building Space Capacity towards this Goal   

Towards achieving this goal, China is building its own permanent space station, the Tiangong, to be completed and operational for international partnerships by 2022. Recently, China launched the Shenzhou 13 that carried three military astronauts to accomplish the longest stay aboard the Tianhe core module for China (six months), and build the structure including its robotic arms. China is aiming to master capacities like automated rendezvous and docking, rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs), and automated cargo supplies through these missions. The National Natural Science Foundation of China allocated $2.3 million for Chinese scientists to study the feasibility of in orbit assembly of a kilometer-wide space station as part of China’s 14th Five Year Plan (2021–25). The thrust of this particular project is to bring down the weight of construction materials to be launched to space, to bring down costs. China has invested in building its lunar capability since 2002 to include robotic orbiters and landers, return lunar samples, and future missions that will survey the South Pole of the Moon. These missions will AI, 3D printing, and in orbit assembly and manufacturing to build China’s lunar research station. In May 2020, China tested an unmanned spacecraft that could launch humans to the Moon by 2036. In October 2021, the Academy of Aerospace Solid Propulsion Technology (AASPT) announced that China had tested a solid rocket engine, with a thrust of more than 500 tons, towards development of a 1, 000 tons solid thrust engine. The development of this technology is aimed at meeting China’s lunar and deep space goals. Recently, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson asserted that China tested a reusable spacecraft, that traversed LEO and then demonstrated the startling ability to maneuver as it glided back to Earth at hypersonic speeds. The Financial Times reported that what China’s MFA now described as a reusable spacecraft test, was actually the test of “a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August [2021] that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.”  Either scenario, if true, reveal advances for China’s space capacity. If the reusable test explanation turns out true, China is primed to meet its goals of reusable spacecraft by 2025. If the Financial Times explanation is true, then China is now is possession of an advanced hypersonic fractional orbital bombardment system that circumvents U.S. radar missile warning. That by itself is a game changer.

Second Goal: Space Based Solar Power (SBSP)

Proposed space solar array SPS-ALPHA, image and concept courtesy John C. Mankins

China became the first country in the world to establish a state funded SBSP base plant in Chongqing’s Bishan district in 2020, under the guidance of the Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration (CCIRICMI). Wang Xiji, the chief designer of China’s first rocket, the Long March 1 specified that “the world will panic when the fossil fuels can no longer sustain human development. We must acquire space solar power technology before then…Whoever obtains the technology first could occupy the future energy market. So it’s of great strategic significance.”

 Space Capacity Building towards this Goal

In pursuance of its SBSP goals, China has initiated a future plan to master the first 100kW SBSP demonstration in LEO by 2025, and 1 mW of SBSP power demonstration in GEO by 2030. By 2050, the goal is to have the first commercial level SBSP in operation in GEO. The Bishan plant is testing technologies like the construction of SBSP satellites in GEO using automated assembly and the microwave transmission of electricity. Given SBSP satellites will weigh 10, 000 tons, and launching them with expendable rockets is expensive, there are plans afoot to make the Long March 9 heavy lift rocket (launch date 2030; 140 metric tons to LEO)) reusable as per Long Lehua, a key designer of China’s Long March rockets. He indicated in a presentation in July 2021 that around 100 Long March 9 heavy lift rockets would be required to construct a 10,000-ton SBSP infrastructure in GEO.

Third Goal: Deep Space (Mars/Asteroid Mining)

Artist’s concept from the 1970s of asteroid mining. Courtesy of Wikipedia

A major Chinese space goal is deep space exploration and development, to include Mars missions and asteroid mining and exploration. The National Space Science Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in collaboration with the Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology, under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is working on a plan for a spacecraft to bag an asteroid and push it over Earth, followed by a heat shield that unfolds reducing the velocity of the asteroid as it enters Earth’s atmosphere. The timeline for such a launch to capture an asteroid is 2029 and the aim is to bring it back to Earth around 2034. As for Mars, China became the second country after the U.S. to enter Mars orbit, land on its surface and send out a working rover, all three tasks accomplished in one mission (2020-2021). The next Mars goal is to accomplish a Mars sample return mission (2030), study its surface and atmosphere, and accomplish human landing by 2045.

Space Capacity Building towards this Goal

China plans to place satellites in the heliocentric Venus orbit, in order to search and analyze Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs), with a diameter of 10 meters. China recently announced that it would have an asteroid exploration mission by 2022. This mission will collect samples from the near-Earth asteroid Kamo’oalewa, and the same spacecraft, once it delivers the samples to Earth, will then be launched to the asteroid belt. Critically, Russia has joined in with China on this asteroid mission. According to a China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) paper:

ZhengHe flies an over ten-year mission, launching in 2022 to reach the NEA 2016HO3, return 200-1000g sample back to earth within 2-3 years, then continue its journey to rendezvous with the Main Belt comet 133P/Elst-Pizarro just before it reaches perihelion in 2030 and remain there for one year to carry on remote sensing and in-situ measurement.

With regard to Mars, besides Mars sample return mission, China aims to develop a Mars human landing system, and build an Earth-Mars cargo return and a Mars base by 2045. The Long March 9 (functional 2030) will play a critical role in this regard.

Spacepower Projection

For China, space is part of its civil military fusion strategy. This is evident from analyzing who is in charge, for example, of its prestigious human space missions. Shenzhou 13 astronauts, PLA Army, Air Force, Astronaut Corp, and Strategic Support Force senior officers, Major General Senior Zhai Zhigang, Senior Colonel Wang Yaping and Senior Colonel Ye Guangfu report to General Li Shangfu, commander-in-chief of China’s manned space program and former Deputy Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). President Xi Jinping has repeatedly reiterated the contribution of space to China’s joint operational concept and informatization warfare, a reason why the PLASSF was established in the first place in 2015. Space forms an integral part of China’s power projection goals, be it in space, or for support towards geopolitical dominance. Towards achieving its ability to achieve spacepower projection capabilities, China is prioritizing investing in capacity that builds it.

Space Capacity Building towards this Goal

Towards achieving space power projection capacity, China has instituted a civil-military fusion unit within the Polit Bureau; constituted a separate space service; plausibly developed space capacities like hypersonics (Mach 5) paired with nuclear capacity; an independent BeiDou navigation system; extensive ISR; RPOs; inspector satellites; and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capability. As per open-source data, China has approximately 81 military satellites, of which the Yaogan series reflects a civil-military fusion [a constellation of remote sensing satellites in LEO], that could not only conduct land survey, disaster forecasting, crops yield evaluation, but also reconnaissance, boasting both electro-optical sensors and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. The Yaogan can track adversary warships (read South China Sea) based on optical and electronic signatures. China has deployed the Gaofen high resolution imagery satellites, with the Gaofen 4 [China’s first GEO based high-definition optical imaging satellite], and the Gaofen 3 [China’s first SAR satellite]. Gaofen-5 is believed to be the world’s first satellite with hyperspectral comprehensive observation of land and atmosphere. China demonstrated the world’s first quantum satellite, Micius in 2016 and is working towards a 12, 992 mega national constellation of small satellites called Guowang. Added to this is China’s focus on developing cislunar Space Domain Awareness, the potential hypersonic test that traversed LEO or a reusable craft, all with strategic significance for China’s spacepower projection.

In conclusion, China’s space goals are determined by economic and national security considerations, and future requirements. As we can see from the analysis above, China is developing multiple space capacities simultaneously, as part of a space logistic architecture, which includes reusable launch, in orbit assembly, autonomous docking and proximity operations, advanced robotics (LEO to Mars), and finally human presence. The path to global leadership in space has been identified by China as a critical node towards establishing a China led international order.

Dr. Namrata Goswami; photo courtesy of her

Dr. Namrata Goswami is an independent scholar on space policy and Great Power Politics. Recently, she has been invited to teach at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Arizona State University for their Executive Masters in Global Management, Space course. She is a consultant for Space Fund Intelligence. She was subject matter expert in international affairs with Futures Laboratory, Alabama and guest lecturer, India Today Class, Emory University. She worked as Research Fellow at MP-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi; a visiting Fellow at Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway; La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia; University of Heidelberg, Germany; Jennings-Randolph Senior Fellow, United States Institute of Peace; and was a Fulbright Senior Fellowship Awardee. She was awarded the MINERVA grant by Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense to study great power competition in outer space. In April 2019, Dr. Goswami testified before the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission on China’s space program. Her co-authored book, Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space was published October 2020 by Lexington Press; Rowman and Littlefield.

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