While China’s rapid progress as a major player in space technology and capability is undeniable, the ‘achilles heel’ to its next step may be the restraint of the private sector.
On 29 April this year a China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) Long March 5B Y2 rocket was successfully launched from the Wenchang launch site in Hainan Province, China. It carried the Tianhe module which will become the core of China’s orbiting space station. Once completed in 2022, Tiangong (as the orbiting station is named) will be China’s first long-term space presence. After 2025, it may become the only orbit space station if the International Space Station (ISS) is retired to schedule (although this could potentially be extended to 2028). Tiangong is expected to have a service life of ten years (although again this could be extended).
Tiangong is the successor to China’s Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space laboratories, launched in 2011 and 2016. It’s only one of a growing number of Chinese space projects. Beijing’s leaders have invested a vast treasure into a long-term strategy that works, simultaneously, at multiple targets: placing into space new orbiting assets; ensuring advanced technologies for land-based assets on earth, such a launch facilities; assets inserted onto celestial bodies, starting with the Moon, and extending to asteroids and Mars.
Dr. Namrata Goswami, an independent scholar on space policy, great power politics, and ethnic conflicts, stated that a permanent space station is deemed to be important by Beijing’s leaders because it helps to send ‘signals’ to the world that China is openly contesting the US for space leadership, and that it is a capable partner for international cooperation in space.
The Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation (APSCO) is China-based with a focus on helping developing countries access space and its members include Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Turkey. APSCO is one example that the Chinese regularly cite when they want to demonstrate their peaceful intentions in space. APSCO oversees an ambitious space surveillance project, the Asia-Pacific Ground-Based Optical Space Object Observation System. As part of this project, which aims to address the space debris problem at a global level, China has provided three 15cm telescopes to Peru, Pakistan, and Iran, each of which are capable of tracking objects in both Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO). But is should be remembered that China greatly contributed to the space debris problem in 2007 when it tested an anti-satellite weapon when it created than 2,000 pieces of trackable size (golf ball size and larger) debris as well as an estimated 150,000 debris particles.
Dual purpose investment
Orbiting assets have received large financial and political investment in China, through the dual use of satellites for civil and military missions (weather, navigation, monitoring environmental systems, voice and data communications, broadcast etc).
But China cannot assert itself as a full-fledged space-based power without achieving truly independent and disruptive innovations. Its leaders assume they will not leapfrog ahead if the country continues down the path laid out by others. According to Marco Aliberti, senior research fellow with the European Space Policy Institute, “this acknowledgement has ushered the country to place more emphasis on the principle of ‘innovative development’ in the pursuit of its space efforts”.
Major breakthroughs with far reaching consequences are expected in several areas, including space sciences (with key scientific missions such as those related to the study of the dark matter and gravitational waves); sat-comms (involving quantum communication and 6G); as well as access to space.
One orbiting satellite constellation, BeiDou, has received the single largest investment. It’s among the most expensive efforts by the Chinese, although it’s little known to the outside world. With the launch of Beidou-3 G3, in June 2020, the Chinese completed that constellation’s full deployment. According to Aliberti, “China will now focus on furthering the integration of Beidou in the national infrastructure and on promoting its commercial uptake both domestically and internationally”. Particular emphasis continues to be placed in supporting the Beidou’s penetration into Belt & Road-associated countries, with a view to consolidating the construction of the “B&R Spatial Information Corridor”. In addition, the Chinese government has set-up three mechanisms by which they intend to further Beidou’s penetration into international systems: China-Central Asia BDS Cooperation Forum; China-Russia Satellite Navigation Key Strategic Cooperation Project Committee; and the China-Arab States BDS Cooperation Forum.
According to Aliberti, “2021 promises to be another busy (actually the busiest) year for the Chinese space programme, with many new significant achievements to be attained.” More than 40 launches are scheduled by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) alone; a figure that will likely continue to maintain CASC as one of the most active launch service providers worldwide. This figure does not include that additional launches that are likely to be carried out by CASC’s Smart Dragon (Jielong-1) rocket (which claims to have 30 orders already), as well as by private launcher companies like Galactic Energy, Expace, and LandSpace.
Aliberti believes that 2021 “will see the deployment of new telecommunication and Earth Observation satellites, including those for the Gaofen series for environmental monitoring, the Fengyun series for meteorology as well as the fourth satellite of the Ziyuan series”. By the same token, Aliberti adds that “the launch of military EO satellites will also continue to see a consolidation, although no information has been released in this respect”. The last satellite for the Yaogan series (Yaogan-33) was deployed in December 2020, but additional reconnaissance satellites can be expected to in 2021 to deliver optical and radar imaging as well ELINT and SIGINT. Aliberti concludes that, “as in previous years, experimental and technology demonstrator satellite series (for scientific and national defence purposes) will likely continue to occupy an important share in China’s launch log”.
China’s focus on developing a wide array of satellite technologies produces nervousness in Washington and Brussels. Lincoln Hines, assistant professor of Space Seminar at USAF Air War College, points out that these capabilities include “military reconnaissance sats, remote sensing sats, comm-sats, cube-satellites or microsats, the world’s first quantum communications sat, and the BeiDou navigation system”. These satellites are built by China’s state-owned sector, the emerging commercial sector, and even Chinese universities. The aim is for commercial firms to be complementary to state-owned entities, with a focus on what Hines calls “smaller, more cost-effective investments, such as microsats”.
BeiDou is perhaps the most ambitious and large-scale of these programmes. This constellation is the system which provides users with position, navigation, and timing services, similar to the US-controlled global positioning system (GPS). Technology experts have analysed Chinese research and development (R&D) investments into the BeiDou third-generation sat constellation (BeiDou-3). This third phase comprised: three GEO satellites, three geosynchronous (IGSO) satellites, and 24 MEO satellites which have introduced new signal frequencies
BeiDou-3 represents an important advancement over the capabilities of BeiDou-1 and BeiDou-2 as it provides positioning accuracy within 10 metres horizontal and 10m vertical; a velocity measurement accuracy within 0.2 meters per second (m/s); and a timing accuracy of 20 nanoseconds. The BeiDou-3 completion is a development with significant implications for military capabilities as it was created for military purposes. The true impetus for the programme dates back to the 1990s, when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) staff became alarmed about their dependence on the GPS network, especially following the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.
Although in recent years, China has actively promoted BeiDou as a civilian-led programme intended primarily for commercial and scientific purposes, in truth it is under overall military direction, with the PLA taking charge of all of BeiDou’s top-tier programme management entities.
Hines questions the assumption that China’s made substantial new investments in these capabilities: “Although outside organisations make estimates about China’s annual spending on space activities, no one really knows how much it spends on its space programme. As of now, China has steadily developed its space capabilities in accordance with publicly stated goals. This suggests that Chinese investments have not dramatically increased (or decreased), but have rather steadily increased”.
China began launching its BeiDou satellites in the early 2000s, and completed construction of its global constellation of satellites in June of 2020. It provides another alternative to the US’s GPS, Europe’s Galileo, or Russia’s GLONASS. Hines says that although it provides an alternative to these services, “it’s unclear what added functionality is provided by BeiDou, in comparison to these other systems. Moreover, many countries rely so heavily on GPS, it’s hard to imagine they will switch to China’s alternative”. There are also important geopolitical considerations. Hines thinks that relying on a Chinese system, rather than these alternatives, “means that other countries would be dependent on China”. For some countries, such as those that have territorial disputes such as in the South China Sea, “it’s hard to imagine that they would want to be overly dependent on Chinese services. It is more likely that China will find willing partners as part of its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative.”
Dr. Samson Phan, senior research engineer at SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) thinks that “the Chinese launches to the Moon are quite impressive”, but that although they “highlight the shrinking technology gap [they] don’t provide a direct comparison of capabilities”. Beidou seeks to provide an independent source of Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) for the Chinese military, which Dr. Phan thinks “could drastically alter their war fighting capability.”
Dr. Phan also believes that SmallSats “could be a game changer” and a method which will allow the US to maintain its space lead. Changing from the ‘all eggs in one basket’ approach, which dominated the past, to a “more distributed system that smallsats allow increases capability robustness as well as pervasiveness”.
The growing distinction now between the US and China is that the the Chinese Government, or by state-owned companies, own and operate China’s space sector. This is distinct from the Americas and Europe, where the private-sector invests side-by-side with government agencies – and increasingly provides capabilities to government on a purely commercial basis. China clearly considers space to be a strategic concern, particularly under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, and wants complete independence in weather and climate forecasting, navigation, space data and communications. Bell ponders whether “China is willing to allow the kind of private-sector participation and innovation that has revolutionised the space industry in the US and Europe.” He concludes that it is hard to exaggerate what a difference this has made to advances in technology, launch capabilities and business models for both civil and military missions.
by Gordon Feller