By Dr. Emma Gatti
On the 31st of March Space Cafè GBA – China re-opened its doors, this time with a new format. Blaine Curcio, Senior Space Consultant and Space Tech expert from Euroconsult based in Hong Kong is back in the show, this time on the guest chair. During the 45 minutes live interview with co-hosts Torsten Kriening and Dr. Emma Gatti, he explored the current Space climate in China, the next developments in their space assets, the upcoming news in the satellite and mission markets, and the most recent political events. Here is a sum of the most important points. Don’t miss the full interview for Blaine’s complete overview!
What’s the Space weather in China right now?
After two years, China is merging from a rigid lockdown, however, the Space sector appears to not be particularly affected by it. The plan to build a variety of different space infrastructures has carried on, and projects like BeiDou, a third-generation satellite navigation constellation and the Chinese Space Station have now been completed. Similarly, the increased emphasis on commercialization and the attempt to broaden the base from which China is able to draw industrial and technological innovation has steadily continued during Covid, with no signs of slowing down.
Proof of that is a 2021 space white paper, published in January 2022, that discusses major projects like Satellite Internet being supported, the lunar missions upcoming over the next five years, and some interesting international collaboration proposals with Pakistan and Egypt. Similarly, the Chinese Space Station human spaceflight program is still a major topic and it appears it will continue to receive support. An interesting political note of the White Paper was a fairly significant emphasis on the role of UNOOSA, the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs, as a recognized international entity for the management of international space, dialogue and affairs.
Russia, USA, Ukraine: on which side does China sit?
China is in a delicate spot right now with Ukraine, and it’s difficult for them to outwardly support Russia. But likewise, it’s difficult to leave Russia hanging, since they have major projects together, including the International Lunar Research Station. Probably China does not really want to do anything antagonistic towards its very large and not particularly well-liked northern neighbour. But that being said, it is also entirely possible that China will just stand back, let the war play out, and weaken the hands of both the US and Russia. In general, it might be more likely than trying to proactively do something in favour or against Russia.
The famous Starlink “accident”: what was it all about?
There’s a certain level of symbolic importance in the way China went about the whole process. The fact that China went through the UN in a very kind of procedural, multilateral institution type of way, is an indication from China that they’re legitimising the UN. In a certain way, it’s implicitly rejecting a more US-led, outer space order. Besides the potential diplomatic meaning, in general, it doesn’t hurt China to bring negative attention to Starlink. It was at the very least a way to assert their own claim to sovereignty.
The International Lunar Research Station:is it happening?
Just a couple of weeks ago, during a major political consultative meeting, we saw the affirmation of three projects coming up over the next eight or so years related to the China Lunar Research Station’s first reconnaissance phase. These three missions are Chang’e 6, 7 and 8, although they’re going to be launched in a different order. The missions seem to be on schedule, and it is relevant to point out that for big projects like this, over the last 10 or 15 years, China has been pretty impressive about its scheduling. The next two phases of the ILRS are scheduled for 2031-2035. During these phases we will start to see crewed missions, and then post 2036, we are going to see the sustained crude presence and actual utilisation of the research station. So a lot going on over the next 15 years in the Chinese space sector!
Artemis vs. IRLS: Is China feeling the international pressure?
The two programs might offer something different to the countries that have not signed up yet. Artemis is more well defined, it’s a nearer term, there are a lot of stakeholders already, and it’s a little bit more rigid because of that. If we look at ILRS, it is not particularly well defined yet. There’s a 15-year time horizon divided into three five-year blocks, and there are a bunch of missions in each block. Because of that, it’s probably much more flexible in terms of what it allows to plan. So there might be a number of countries that talk with both, and eventually, you’re going to have countries that take part in both Artemis and the ILRS.
There is definitely a lot going on in satellite manufacturing and launch. On the Earth observation side, we’ve seen this acceleration in the number of commercial constellations that are entering the market. The big one will be CG STL. They expanded their constellation plans from about 138 satellites by 2026, to up to 300. And then a few weeks after that, they announced plans for an IPO. so we can assume they’re going to have a valuation of seeming very likely more than a billion US dollars at the time of IPO. And that would make them one of the bigger commercial remote sensing or observation companies in the world.
Communications satellites are even a bigger topic because China is trying to fight back against Starlink. We have witnessed earlier this year the foundation of a China satellite networks limited company, the “Guowang” or “national network” satellite internet project. On the same day, the Shanghai government published some supportive measures for satellite manufacturing and for cubic satellite communication. In this sense, it really does seem we are witnessing this top-down policy that wants to build a satellite internet industrial base and eventually extend it to a global low Earth orbit satellite internet network.
In terms of military and non-civilian satellites, obviously, it’s much harder to gain information. However, it’s been really interesting to see some of the technologies that are being used. We saw a satellite that went up to the geostationary arc and it grappled with a BeiDou satellite that had reached its end of life and embroidered graveyard orbit. No one really saw that coming until the grappling event happened. The point is that even the idea that China had even developed such technology was unknown. This suggests that there are a lot of different technologies that China is trying to catch up with and there’s a fair amount of military stuff being launched as well, but hard for us to know.
The Launch Market
An estimated two and a half billion US dollars have gone into the launcher market in the past eight years. That’s a huge number, but also a relatively small number in the context of companies like SpaceX. So have we seen peak Chinese launch? And the answer is maybe not. We have seen a number of commercial launch companies making pretty significant progress over the last three years. About five months ago, we saw Galactic Energy becoming the first Chinese commercial launch company to launch two rockets successfully. Several of these new companies are talking about manufacturing several rockets per year initially and then manufacturing 20 or 25 per year thereafter. And so we might be about to see a big increase in the amount of capacity coming from these commercial launch companies.
China and Space Tourism: is it gonna happen?
There have been some really interesting comments about space tourism in China. Initially, space tourism felt unlikely, because it’s such a conspicuous display of wealth that felt inadvisable for people to be doing that. But then we started to see companies like CAS Space, which initially focused on rockets and now it has been developing space tourism type of vehicles. So it seems there are two competing forces. On one hand, China wants to democratise space, but at the same time, it does not look good for the Communist Party if someone pays $100,000 to go into space, especially in a society like the Chinese one that’s increasingly concerned about wealth inequality. We’ll see how that goes, but it’s definitely something to watch for.