China’s space program is taking off

By Kimberly Jin | October 30, 2019

In 2018, China conducted 39 orbital launches, more than any other country in the world. However, China has a long march ahead to catch up with the U.S., as Chinese official space exploration only began in earnest around the turn of the 21st century.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

In 2019, China’s space program made history.

On January 3, the robotic lunar probe Chang’e-4 pulled off the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the Moon, revealing another mysterious aspect of our solar system. It spurred a tweet from none other than NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine: “This is a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment!”

China’s space program began in 1956 with the establishment of the Fifth Academy of the Ministry of National Defense, presently called the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. In 1958, Mao Zedong announced that “China should also produce its own artificial satellite [中国也要搞人造卫星 zhōngguó yě yào gǎo rénzào wèixīng],” a goal that would be interrupted by the Great Chinese Famine and Cultural Revolution. The first Chinese satellite didn’t reach orbit until 1970, one year after Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

However, China has steadily improved its aeronautical technology over the years, and is now a major space power in the world. Since 2003, China has sent astronauts into space six times, and it has delivered two spacecrafts into lunar orbit since 2007.

In 2018, China conducted 39 orbital launches, more than any other country in the world; the U.S. was the second, with 34 launches, according to the Space Launch Report. But as for government expenditure on space, the U.S. still leads the world, with a $40.9 billion government budget in 2018, followed by China, with a $5.8 billion budget, according to Euroconsult.

Key projects in the Chinese space program

1. Shenzhou (神舟 shén zhōu, Divine Craft) spaceflights 

The Shenzhou program is China’s crewed spaceflight initiative. The program began in 1992 and has conducted 11 missions so far, six of which were manned spaceflights. Its first flight, Shenzhou-1, was an unmanned test flight launched in 1999. Shenzhou-5, China’s first manned flight, was launched in 2003 with astronaut Yáng Lìwěi 杨利伟. Shenzhou-9, launched in 2012, sent three Chinese astronauts into space, including Liú Yáng 刘洋, the first female Chinese astronaut. In total, the Shenzhou program has sent 11 different Chinese astronauts into space.

Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut

Liu Yang, the first female Chinese astronaut

2. Tiangong (天宫 tiān gōng, Celestial Palace) space station 

Tiangong-1 was China’s first prototype space station. It orbited Earth from September 2011 to April 2018, serving as both a manned laboratory and an experiment to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. Tiangong-2, the second Chinese space laboratory, was launched in 2016. Its purpose is to prepare for the China Space Station (CSS), which is scheduled to operate around 2022, Xinhua reported (in Chinese).

A rendering of what the CSS will look like, by the China Manned Space Agency

3. Chang’e (嫦娥 Cháng’é, a goddess in Chinese mythology who lives on the Moon) program

The Chang’e program, also known as the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), consists of four phases: orbital missions, soft landers/rovers, sample-return missions, and a lunar research station. Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2 were lunar orbiters launched in 2007 and 2010, respectively. Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 were lunar landers with rovers attached, with the former successfully landing in December 2013 and the latter making a touchdown on the far side of the Moon on January 3, 2019.

The rovers for the third and fourth missions were called Yutu-1 and Yutu-2, respectively, with Yùtù 玉兔 meaning “jade rabbit,” and also being the name of a mythical creature who is the pet of Chang’e.

The fifth mission, Chang’e-5, is another lunar lander that will bring back samples from the Moon, and is scheduled to launch by the end of 2019.

The Yutu-2 lunar rover, photographed by the Chang’e-4 lander

Chang’e-4 photographed by Yutu-2

4. Long March (长征 cháng zhēng) rockets 

The Long March rocket refers to a family of launch systems independently developed by China beginning in 1965. China used the Long March 1 to launch its first satellite, Dong Fang Hong-1 (东方红 dōng fāng hóng, The East Is Red), in 1970. The Long March rockets currently have eight series and 21 models. As of April 2019, Long March rockets have been involved in more than 300 launches.

5. Yinghuo (萤火 yíng huǒ, Luminous Fire) probe

Yinghuo-1 was a Chinese Mars probe launched in 2011 with a Russian spacecraft in Kazakhstan. Due to orbital burn failure of the Russian spacecraft, Yinghuo-1 was declared lost nine days after the launch. In 2012, Yinghuo-1 re-entered into the Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated over the Pacific Ocean.

Goals of the Chinese space program

Becoming the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on Mars in 2020 is among the Chinese government’s goals. Photo credit: A computer animation of what China’s Mars 2020 lander will look like, via Xinhua.

While NASA’s priorities change from administration to administration — from the Moon to Mars and back to the Moon — China has been more consistent in its space plans, and has traditionally stuck to its proposed time frames.

According to the most recent Chinese government white paper about space in 2016, short-term goals for the Chinese space program include launching Chang’e-5 by the end of 2019 to bring back samples from the Moon for analysis, launching a Mars probe in early 2020, and building the Beidou-2 global satellite navigation system by 2020.

The Mars probe would be historic if China’s mission succeeds. If China and the U.S. both meet their goals for 2020, China will become the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on Mars, while NASA will land its fifth rover on the Red Planet.

The Beidou-2 is set up as a Chinese competitor to the American government’s global positioning system (GPS). An early version of the system has already been in place since late 2018, offering functional but relatively imprecise tracking.

As for human spaceflight, China is planning to send astronauts to the Moon and building a “lunar palace” — a research station — on the Moon. Though China didn’t release a specified timeline, officials said they were hopeful the latter can be achieved by 2030.

Experts argue that China’s ambition is more than just replicating American achievements. Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an expert on China’s space program, said in an interview, “I think what we will see will be either more people, a more extended stay, or maybe landing at a pole” in China’s crewed lunar exploration.

In addition to short-term missions, China is also aiming for long-term space settlement and resource utilization. For example, Chinese scientists began studying the possibility of space-based solar power early this year, China Daily reported. If the experiment turns out successfully, it could help solve problems with pollution and energy shortage, said Pang Zhihao, a retired China Academy of Space Technology researcher.

China’s private space industry

The first successful private rocket launch delivering satellites to space in China, by Beijing-based startup iSpace in July 2019.

The private space industry is growing very fast and has made some significant achievements in recent years, including successfully launching a rocket into space and delivering satellites into orbit for the first time in July this year. However, before 2014, private investment into the space industry was illegal in China, so Chinese private startups like iSpace, OneSpace, and LandSpace have a long way to go to catch up with American counterparts like SpaceX. 

Controversies: Space debris and militarization of space

Although China has been emphasizing its peaceful approach to outer space, suspicions and concerns have been expressed by other countries, especially the U.S.

In 2007, China conducted its first successful anti-satellite test by taking out a dead weather satellite with a ballistic missile. The incident created more than 3,000 trackable objects and an estimated 150,000 particles of debris, making it the largest space-debris-generating event in history, the BBC reported.

Currently, more than one-third of all debris floating around Earth comes from two incidents — China’s 2007 anti-satellite test and the accidental collision of a U.S. communications satellite and a defunct Russian one in 2009 — Bloomberg reported.

In addition to space debris, another concern that leapt to prominence from the 2007 test is the militarization of space. The test demonstrated China’s capacity to disrupt satellites, which are widely used in military communications, intelligence, and missile guidance by other countries.

Right after the 2007 incident, nearby countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia pressed the Chinese government to explain the test. But the Chinese government declined to comment. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman at the time said only that China opposed using weapons in space, claiming, “China will not participate in any kind of arms race in outer space.” 

Critics in the U.S. are not convinced. “China views space superiority as part of the ability to control the information sphere and that is a key component of modern warfare,” a senior Defense Intelligence Agency official said this February. 

Early this year, Vice President Mike Pence wrote that “China and Russia are aggressively developing and deploying capabilities — including anti-satellite weapons, airborne lasers, menacing ‘on-orbit’ capabilities and evasive hypersonic missiles — that have transformed space into a warfighting domain.”

U.S.-China tensions around space development are currently on the rise for other reasons as well. For example, in October 2019, China said the U.S. had “weaponized” its visas to block a Chinese delegation from attending the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C.

Future: Is China “winning” the space race?

Without a doubt, China is catching up with U.S. achievements in outer space.

But experts say China is still far from surpassing the U.S. Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank that focuses on space, said the notion that the U.S. is “going to lose to China” is “absurd,” the Washington Post reported. He added that some are “trying to prop up the China threat as rationale for their own policy goals.”

A 2019 research report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission also points out that China still lags behind the U.S. in some areas of space exploration, although it says that China “will likely achieve other important milestones more quickly than the United States did in the past.”

And while some U.S. politicians have hyped up China’s ambitions in space, and claimed the two countries are in a space race, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has emphatically said, “That race is over. We went to the Moon and we won. It’s done. Now we’re in a position where we can take our time and make sure we get it right.”

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