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China’s Future Space Ambitions: What’s Ahead?

China has an impressively long-term space strategy mapped out. Here’s what to watch for in the coming years.

By Namrata Goswami for
China’s Future Space Ambitions: What’s Ahead?

Xinhua News Agency released this photo Oct. 11, 2005 showing China’s second manned spacecraft Shenzhou-6 joined by the Long March CZ-2F rocket at the launch tower of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.

Credit: AP Photo / Xinhua, Zhao Jianwei

On October 1, 2019 China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). President Xi Jinping took the opportunity to proclaim that “no force will stop or shake China or its people from achieving its goals” of becoming the primary global power.

Outer space is an integral part of Xi’s China dream of broadcasting Chinese power and influence, and a critical component of his Civil-Military Integration Strategy. Consequently, by October 1, 2049, when China celebrates its 100th year of existence, outer space presence and military space capacity will play a key role.

So, what should we expect from China in outer space over the next 30 years?

China’s space ambitions far exceed any other space faring nation in both range and long-term strategy. This includes an incremental strategy of developing space capacity in sequence. First, build space capacity for cost effective launch and access. Second, launch its own permanent space station. Third, create capacity to dominate cislunar space. Fourth, once cislunar is secured, develop the capacity for sustainable presence on the moon, to include in-space manufacturing as well as mature space-based solar power (SBSP) technology to power its lunar base and sustain human presence. Finally, once that is accomplished, develop capacity for deep space exploration and resource extraction from asteroids.

China is investing and developing space capacity that equips it to meet those goals. For instance, on October 27, China transported the Long March 5 rocket to Qinglan Port in Wenchang in South China’s Hainan province. The Long March 5 launch is planned for the end of the year. China’s space engineers spent two years correcting a malfunction in the rocket after it failed at launch on July 2, 2017. A successful launch of the Long March 5 with a payload capacity of 25 tonnes to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 14 tonnes in Geostationary Orbit (over two times the capacity of previous Chinese carrier rockets), is critical for the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP)’s Chang’e 5 launch scheduled for 2020. The Chang’e 5 lunar mission is aimed at lunar sample return. The mission will include a lander, an orbiter, an ascender, and a returner. The Chang’e 5 plans to demonstrate takeoff from the moon, rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, and high speed re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. To be noted: these developments are within the deadlines announced by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) earlier this year.

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By 2020, China intends to send a Mars probe that will include an Orbiter and a Lander. China aspires for a 2036 first human mission to the moon.

These incremental lunar explorations are a testimony to the vision of CLEP’s main scientists and policymakers, to include chief scientist Ouyang Ziyuan, Sun Zezhou, the chief designer of the Chang’e 4 probe; Liu Hanlong, the chief director of Chang’e 4’s 3 kg bio-regenerative life support module experiment; and Wu Weiren, chief designer of the Chang-e lunar exploration program. Ouyang articulated as far back as 2002, that “the moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy…whoever first conquers the moon benefits first.” This strategic thinking for outer space extends China’s territorial claims on Earth, based on first presence. Wu specified that China must establish its presence on the Lunar South Pole by 2030, given the presence of sunlight and water-ice.

Ye Peijian, head of CLEP, counselled in 2018 that if China does not take advantage of its present space faring capacities and establish  presence on the Moon, others will take over, and  China will lose out. Ye was awarded China’s highest state honor by Xi  during the 70th anniversary celebration, one of the first recipients of such a honor from the CCP.

To meet its extended goals of permanent human presence on the moon and constructing SBSP satellites in LEO by 2025 and in GEO by 2030, China is developing the Long March 9 to be flight tested in 2030. This rocket development is aimed at that SBSP launch to GEO (by 2030), the launch of the Chang’e 7 (aimed at surveying the Lunar South Pole in 2030), and the Chang’e 8 (2035), that will test key technologies like 3D printing.

According to Li Hong, the Deputy General Manager at China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC), “the Long March 9 super heavy-lift carrier rocket will be capable of lifting 140 metric tons of payload into a low-Earth orbit, or a 50-ton spacecraft to a lunar transfer orbit. The giant rocket will also be able to ferry a 44-ton payload to a Mars transfer orbit.” CASC estimates that 10 Long March 9 rockets will be required annually to meet China’s space goals between 2030 and 2035. The Long March 9 “will be propelled by a new-generation liquid oxygen/kerosene engine with 500 tons of thrust power.”

As for other space capacity, China became the first country in the world to establish a $30 million state funded SBSP base plant in Chongqing’s Bishan district early this year. The base plant is being constructed under the guidance of the Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration (CCIRICMI) in southwestern China in partnerships with researchers from Chongqing University. Technologies being tested include the construction of SBSP satellites in GEO using automated assembly and the wireless transmission of power. To propel faster space travel, China is investing in nuclear powered spacecraft, to be flight tested by 2040, to enable mining of asteroids and deep space exploration. A 2016 CASC report laid out the logic for nuclear powered space shuttles: “The achievement will be able to support large-scale exploration and development of space resources, and make mining on asteroids and space solar power plants possible.”

China is also encouraging its private space startups to include OneSpace, LandSpace, Linkspace, and iSpace. iSpace, also known as Interstellar Glory Space Technology, became the first Chinese private space company to launch its rocket, Hyperbola 1, successfully into orbit on July 25, 2019. iSpace also showcased its Hyperbola 2, a reusable rocket, in the 2019 Zhongguancun Forum. Aimed for flight test in 2021, the Hyperbola 2 has a capacity to launch 1.9 tons to LEO. Reusability will be a game changer for China’s space program.

As for military space, China demonstrated its ASAT capability in LEO back in 2007, followed by a 2013 demonstration of a robotic arm on the SY-7 satellite that could grab another satellite. Other notable achievements include developing an unhackable quantum based satellite in 2016, operationalizing PLA Strategic Support Force ASAT-equipped units in 2018, and launching a satellite and rocket (Long March 3B) to geostationary orbit in 2019. China overtook the United States in 2018 with the highest number of satellite launches, 39 to 31.

From the perspective of grand strategy and policy, Xi has taken firm control of China’s destiny by instituting himself as president for life. Under his leadership, China is not afraid to broadcast its power and use its influence for bargaining. Xi’s championing of space as an integral part of his grand strategy, and equating the “spirit of aerospace” to the “historic spirit of the Long March” that Mao undertook, clearly demonstrate the critical importance of outer space to China’s future.

Xi’s promise of sending Chinese citizens to the moon was reiterated by China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, during the 16th year celebration of his flight into space abroad the Shenzhou 5 on October 15, 2003.

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China has started to develop the key technologies related to manned lunar landing. It would be exciting to see Chinese astronauts stepping onto the extraterrestrial object… Like all the other Chinese astronauts, I’m ready for the nation’s call…China’s progress in space reflects the improvement of the national strength.

As China looks to dominate both access and presence in outer space as part of its grand strategy of augmenting national strength and revival, it is critical we understand the space capacities it already possesses, and the capacities it is building. Otherwise, we will be taken by surprise in 2045, when China aims to become the lead nation in space with a human presence on the moon.

Dr. Namrata Goswami is a senior analyst and author. Her work on “Outer Space and Great Powers” was supported by the MINERVA Initiative Grant for Social Science Research. Currently, she is working on a book on “Great Powers and Resource Nationalism in Space” to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.  All views expressed here are her own.