Chang'e, the Chinese goddess of the Moon, touching the hand of a taikonaut. Source: Radii.
Since the end of World War Two, space has been a strategic area of confrontation for countries. During the Cold War, this supplementary battlefield became a central place for shows of force by both the USSR and the United States: on October 4th, 1957, the USRR marked the world's history by being the first nation to send a satellite into space; on July 21st, 1969, the United States imposed its space supremacy by planting the star-spangled banner on the Moon. The epoch of this bipolar standoff has now ended, as numerous states and private companies have attained access to space. Among the different new and rising superpowers, China is the player that has demonstrated the biggest aspirations in this race.
Space, a political priority for socio-economic development
In line with the country's desire to establish itself as the uncontested dominant power for the upcoming twenty-second century, the Middle Kingdom's aims to definitively affirm its presence in space. The country's policy on the matter is viewed as a central element in the national strategy, heavily intwined with progress in other areas such as oceanography, telecommunications, defense, fundamental physics, and geology. As stated by Xi Jinping, the country's priority is: "To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power." In addition to the Chinese Communist Party discourse and propaganda, space is central in the 14th Five Year Plan 2021-2025 that guides the country's future development. The plan particularly highlights three points: telecommunications, deep-space exploration, and finally, infrastructure development.
In telecommunications, the priority is set up on technologies that are key to the development of the Chinese industry:
·BeiDou – the Chinese equivalent to US GPS, EU's Galileo, and Russia's GLONASS- is cited in the high technologies that enable an "increase in manufacturing core competitiveness."
·Free-space quantum communication is listed as one of the seven "research in cutting edge science and technology field."
In deep-space exploration, the country aims at exploring and controlling this area (along with deep earth, deep-sea and polar regions). The plan focuses on several long-term exploration programs to achieve this ambitious goal: Mars orbiting, asteroid inspection, and the Lunar exploration project are chief among them. These developments will be supported by new technologies, including future heavy lift launch vehicles, reusable transportation systems, and manned spacecraft.
On the infrastructure side, the roadmap objective is to strengthen the country's capabilities by building new commercial launch sites, space environment ground-based monitoring networks, and space environment surface simulation devices.
Closing meeting of the fifth session of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC). Source: Xinhua.
In continuity with the 14th 5-year plan, the State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China published a whitepaper titled "China's Space Program: A 2021 Perspective". Contrary to the 5-years plan, which is a general policy paper, this document is much more exhaustive and enters the details of the different programs; it makes a global overview of the country's recent achievements and provides an itinerary for future development with a five-year horizon.
This policy paper highlights that China has a holistic vision of space and a comprehensive strategy. The space industry is not seen as an isolated sector but as a driver for the whole country's scientific capabilities, high technology development, and even social progress. Advancement in the space sector is thus expected to benefit other economic industries and the nation.
The different programs are mutually complementary and aim to fulfill the country's long-term goals. They include objectives of progress in the field of physics and fundamental sciences with advanced research on dark matter, solar burst activities, and spatial gravitational waves. The scientific objectives notably include a collection of extraterrestrial samples and research on geology, planetary origin, and evolution. However, China's vision of space is not exclusively technology-based or scientific-based; the country is also at the forefront of space governance and regulation.
Wang Yaping, Zhai Zhigang, and Ye Guangfu are returning to Earth from the Tiangong space station core module Tianhe in April 2022. Source: CMSE.
International cooperation and peaceful space development…officially
In addition to its ambitions, China is active in the international scene and uses space as a powerful diplomatic tool. The country has developed multiple bilateral and multilateral partnerships and joint missions worldwide such as those with Pakistan (long-term collaboration with Pakistan Space Center), Egypt (Egypt Space City project), France (Oceanography satellite), and BRICS countries (remote sensing). For instance, among the concrete realizations already performed, we can highlight sharing data from the Chang'e 4 satellite with the international scientific community.
In the coming years, the country is expected to increase the number of cooperation agreements, notably through training and academic exchanges. The government is also pursuing its objective to expand its presence in international organizations such as G20, BRICS group, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Remarkably, the country has developed its influence through the UN's International Committee on Global Navigation Satellite Systems or the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO). As part of the "Belt and Road Initiative," China has also developed a specific strategy: "the Belt and Road Initiative Space Information Corridor."
ASPCO 10th Anniversary High-Level Forum. Source: Alarmy.
This cooperative approach is complementary to the country's international position. In fact, China strongly advocates its willingness to promote the peaceful use of space, and the government's discourse defends the fundamentals of the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon, and Other Celestial Bodies." Officially, China opposes "any attempt to turn outer space into a weapon or battlefield or launch an arms race in outer space." and promotes sustainable use of space resources. The country claims that it wants to ensure that "space remains peaceful and clean and guarantees that its space activities benefit humanity." China's ambition is formally to participate in formulating international space regulations to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities and to contribute to fulfilling the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
According to the country's rhetoric, the progress achieved by China in the space area is presented as a benefit for the Chinese nation and a contribution to the progress of humanity through deep space research and new scientific discoveries. This vision concerns not only the space but also the sum total of the foreign policy, which officially promotes the implementation of a "modern socialist policy" and defends the idea of a "global community of shared future," contributing to "improve people's well-being" and "serving human progress."
President Xi Jinping meets Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing in 2019. Source: Xinhua.
The Military Angle
Although China has developed diplomacy based on an ostensibly pacifistic position, the country is one of the most active players in space militarization. Considering only the number of satellites that may be used for military purposes, China is the most powerful nation in space at the moment, as according to the 2022 release of the military balance, published by The International Institute for Strategic Studies, the country possesses 161 military satellites in activity. This number is tremendously significant; for comparison, the United States only owns 142 satellites, Russia has 113, and Italy has 9. In detail, China owns satellites that cover the complete spectrum of possible military applications. In particular, the country holds:
· 64 satellites for ELINT and SIGINT (Electronic and Signal Based Intelligence)
· 45 satellites for navigation and positioning
· 32 satellites for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance)
· 9 satellites for communication
· 8 satellites for meteorology and oceanography
In parallel to the development of space capabilities, the country is also at the forefront of the anti-satellite technology field and has significant operating capabilities. Given that space has become an essential dimension for all armies worldwide as satellites provide crucial communications, geolocalisation, and intelligence capabilities, losing access to its space capabilities would engender tremendous organizational disruption and undermine a modern army’s aptitude to operate efficiently. Thus, acquiring the ability to deny an enemy access to its space infrastructure is a considerable military advantage, and consequently a new range of weapons is being developed: these are the ASATs, which includes all space weapons designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic or tactical purposes. In the field of ASATs, China is as we said at the forefront of development, with research programs on kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, orbiting space robots, and electronic weapons (including satellite jammers, cyber capabilities, and directed-energy weapons).
YaoGan ELINT Sattelite. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The first and most common type of ASAT is the family of anti-satellite missiles. Those weapons are often directly derived from Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Systems and Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Following its 2007 trials, China acquired the capability to hit satellites in low-Earth orbit using ground-based missiles. This year, the country destroyed a redundant Feng Yun 1-C weather, in a test that has been highly debated as it created more than 3,000 dangerous pieces of debris in space. China is pursuing research on additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit.
Between 2013 and 2015, Beijing conducted new tests in "nearly geosynchronous orbit." For this occasion, the country used its latest generations of missiles for the first time, Dong Neng-2 and Dong Neng-3. They are "primarily direct-ascent missiles designed to ram into satellites and destroy them, even if intelligence assessments hold that the weapon has some missile defense capabilities."
More recently, the SJ-17 satellite, which owns a robotic arm, has performed a series of proximity maneuvers close to deactivated Chinese satellites on the geostationary belt. This training and the mission performed by the Shijian-21 satellite may give China the capability to dock, manipulate or maneuver other spacecraft, including enemy satellites.
In September 2022, China launched using LongMarch 2F, a Secret Space Plane that may be equivalent to the US X-37B. China presents this new vessel as a "reusable spacecraft," which provides "convenient and low-cost round-trip transport for the peaceful use of the space." According to several sources, the spacecraft was also used to orbit a military micro-satellite before returning to Earth.
In complement to the "hard-kill" methods, Beijing is also testing soft-kill ways to incapacitate enemy satellites. Soft-kill methods notably include jammers that disrupt an adversary's communications with a satellite by overpowering the signals sent to or from it, and also include directed energy weapons to damage or destroy an enemy's satellite or cyber-attacks.
In parallel to pure military capabilities, the country's civil aerospace industry is also used following the principle of Civil-Military Fusion, which promotes the pursuit of convergence between civilian and defense economies. This objective is also a key priority of the Chinese state, as stated in the 14th Five Year plan, which emphasizes the necessity to build overreaching integrated systems in which civilian, defense, and national security sectors are interoperable and coordinated. The space sector is highly affected by the recent announcement of further cooperation between several major industrial companies: China Electronic Corporation (CEC), China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), and China Aerospace Science Corp (CASC).
The principle of Uplink Jamming. Source: US Department of Defense.
Quantum communications, a Chinese strategic advantage
Before being used for military activities, space exploration enabled the progress of telecommunications and made us enter the information era. In 2013, the revelations made by Edward Snowden acted as an electroshock for the international community as he revealed the dependence of numerous countries on telecommunications infrastructures controlled by the United States. The risk of having its communications spied on by a foreign power has become unbearable for the Chinese government, and the country has started developing its own proprietary networks to mitigate this problem. Among the most promising technologies, China has acquired a technological superiority in quantum communications.
Quantum Communications provides robust, highly secured cryptographic protection without the need to trust the satellite. This technology may be applied to various applications, including bank transactions, diplomatic communications, authentication, or defense operations. In the future, mastering this technology may give China a strategic advantage in commercial and military scenes. The first country to expand and implement this technology widely will have a tremendous opportunity to set up world standards and create a unique reference network for several years. This would place the Chinese quantum network in a similar monopolistic position to the GPS in the last decades.
The national strategy in the sector is executed under the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS). The experimentations are performed under the supervision of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology. The leading team supporting the project consisted of Jianwei Pan, Yuao Chen, and Chengzhi Peng from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei.
China's plans for developing this technology rely on a close interaction between ground-based infrastructures and space satellites using a method named "quantum key distribution" (QKD). In this framework, satellites are used to produce a pair of entangled photons that serve as cryptographic keys. In this state, the encrypted message does not transit through satellites but through land-based cables. At the extremity of the network, two unique telescope stations receive the photon produced in the satellite and unencrypt the message. All along the ground network, 32 trusted nodes ensure the transmission of the messages. Although highly secured, this technology is still vulnerable to some forms of impeachment or hacking, such as blinding the telescopes with other light signals.
This national network which started to operate in 2017 in China, covers the cities of Beijing, Jinan, Hefei, and Shanghai. The current quantic network combines 700 optical fibers on the ground with two ground-to-satellite links to achieve quantum key distribution over a total distance of 4,600 kilometers for users across the country.
In recent years, China achieved numerous milestones:
·In 2016, the launch of Micius, the first satellite used for quantum communications.
·In 2017, Micius is used to distribute quantum cryptographic keys to ground stations in Beijing and Shanghai and enabled secured communication between the two cities.
·In the same year, communication is performed between Vienna and Beijing, using the same process previously used between Shanghai and Beijing, enabling a virtual video conference between Austrian and Chinese science academies – 7,400km apart.
·In 2022, the country launches a micro-nano quantum satellite, allowing it to conduct real-time quantum key distribution experiments and perform technical verification.
Future scientists from the QUESS framework estimate that a constellation of three to five satellites would be sufficient to distribute secured quantic keys worldwide. In September 2021, QuantumCTek, a subsidiary of USTC, presented a prototype of a portable station. The dispositive will weigh less than 100kg with a setting-up time inferior to 12 hours. This new QKD-secured technology may be deployed for quantum communication anywhere in the world.
The principle of quantum key distribution. Source: C. Bickel/Science (picture), Jian-Wei Pan (data).
Tiangong, the Chinese outpost in space
Maintaining long-term manned access to space is an important technologic challenge. Space stations in history have been powerful instruments of soft power through their contribution to scientific research and representation in popular culture. In the past stations such as Salyut, Skylab, and MIR have marked our collective imaginary, while for the last two decades, the International Space Station has been the only space station in activity. In the race to conquer the hearts and minds of the young, China has planned to create its dream machine: the Palace in the Sky (Tiangong).
Tiangong is a critical tool in numerous essential programs for the overall Chinese space plans. The space station will become an outpost for the country's space exploration, allowing for permanent human presence on board and space laboratories to perform long-term experiments in the microgravity environment. Most importantly, Tiangong will become the only remaining space station after the interruption of the International Space Station planned by 2031.
Comparison of International Space Station, Chinese Space Station, and Mir. Source: China Power, Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Once completed, the Space Station will be composed of 3 core modules: the Tianhe Core module, the Wentian lab, and the Mengtian lab. The station will also include docking areas for Tianxhou cargo and the Shenzhou crew module. Overall, the station is designed with a targeted lifetime of 10 years, is expected to have a permanent crew of 3 people for six months, and welcomes up to 6 taikonauts during the crew changes. The first three crews of three taikonauts arrived in the station's first module in June 2021, October 2021, and July 2022 through the Shenzhou spacecraft.
The country will continue to build its space station in the following years. The First steps of assembling have already been performed during the last two years. In April 2021, the Tianhe core module was launched, and the Wentian laboratory was assembled in July 2022 using the Long March 5th rocket. In October, the Mengtian Laboratory modules are expected to be docked and to finalize the space station. The logistics supply of the space station is ensured by the Tianzhou cargo spacecraft, which is launched with a Long March 7th rocket, whereas the Shenzhou crew vessel is established with a Long March 2F rocket.
The Chinese space station is the country's direct emanation in space and will be an essential asset to the government for its different missions. For instance, once built, the station will be placed on the same orbit as the Xuntian space telescope, expected to be launched in 2024. This strategic position will allow to periodically dock the telescope to the space station to perform refilling or refurbishment. The space station will also be equipped with an arm, the Chinese Space Station Remote Manipulator System, to efficiently manipulate the different objects in the void of space (comparable to the existing Canadarm present in the International Space Station).
In parallel, the country will continue to improve its landing capabilities on the Moon. The final objective is to leverage the lunar experience to colonize Mars, and the country aspires to build new spacecraft as part of its long-term plans.
The architecture of Tiangong Space Station, Source: Xinhua News
Chang'e Lunar Program
As a preliminary step to its envisioned colonization of March, China is developing its capabilities by exploring the Moon. The program to explore our only satellite is named the "Chinese Lunar Exploration Program" (Chang'e) and started in 2004. This program is performed under the supervision of China's National Space Administration and is divided into four clearly defined phases. The method adopted for exploring the Moon is similar to the approach selected to colonize Mars.
The first phase, considered to have been already achieved, consisted of the launch of two lunar orbiters:
·Chang'e 1, launched in 2007, consisted of an orbiter that scanned the entire Moon and generated a high-definition map of the abundance and distribution of various chemical elements on the lunar surface
·Chang'e 2, launched in 2010, the mission consisted of another orbiter that improved the precision of the first 3D map and tested the TT&C network in different areas of space (Telemetry Tracking and Command).
The second step is the exploration of the satellite with soft-landers and rovers. This phase, also already achieved, consisted of two supplementary missions.
·Chang'e 3, launched in 2013, which explored 3 square kilometers thanks to the rover Yutu and carried experiences including ultra-violet observations of galaxies, active galactic nuclei, variable stars, binaries, novae, quasars, and blazars, as well as the structure and dynamics of the Earth's plasmasphere.
·Chang'e 4, launched in 2018, which explored the South Pole of the Moon using the rover Yutuu-2.
The third step, now in its final stages, is the sample return which also contains 2 phases:
·Chang'e 5-T1, launched in 2014, was a preparatory mission for the next phase of the sample-collection mission.
·Chang'e 5, launched in 2020, allowed to return more than 2 kilograms of lunar soil to the Earth.
The fourth phase of the plan will be setting up all the necessary tools to create an autonomous robotic lunar research station. It will consist of three primary missions.
·Chang's 6 will, in 2024, investigate the topography, composition, and subsurface structure of the South Pole–Aitken basin and return samples to Earth.
·Chang'e 7 will, in 2024, include an orbiter, a relay satellite, a lander, a rover, and a mini-flying probe. It will search for potential natural resources.
·Chang'e 8 will, in 2027, include a lander, a rover, a flying detector, and a 3D-printing experiment to test the technology necessary for constructing a lunar science base.
China's Chang'e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover Source: CNSA/CLEP
After implementing those preliminary steps, China aims to perform manned colonization of the Moon with a forward outpost at the South Pole in the 2030s. Around 2035, China plans to set up a long-term International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) that will welcome taikonauts and cosmonauts following the 2017 agreement signed between Russia and China. This program enters in direct competition with the American-led Artemis Program. According to Andrey Denisov, the Russian ambassador to China: "The Russian side is ready to cooperate with Chinese friends, and it will constantly assume efforts to contribute more to the promotion of joint space exploration projects."
The next step of this program will rely on developing a new generation crew launch vehicle, including the future Long March 9th or the improved Long March 5DY specially adapted for the lunar landing.
In recent months, significant scientific achievements have led to an acceleration in the program, as after exploring the composition of the Moon, the country has discovered phosphate minerals in columnar crystal (called Changesite-(Y) under Chinese denomination) containing helium-3, which could be a future important source of energy.
The Chang'e 5 samples returned to Earth also show the presence of water in the Moon's Polar region. Li Chunlai, a planetary scientist at the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), stated that: "By investigating lunar water and its source, we are learning more about the formation and evolution of not just the Moon itself, but also the solar system. In addition, lunar water is expected to provide support for future human lunar in-situ resources."
A render depicting phase 3 of the China-Russia ILRS roadmap. Source: CNSA
Mars, a first preliminary plan before colonization
China's ambition in space is not limited to the Earth's or the Moon's vicinity; Mars also interests the Eastern Dragon. In June 2021, Wang Xiaojun, head of the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, unveiled his main plan to achieve the exploration of Mars: the objective is to establish a lasting presence on Mars following a preliminary 3-steps framework implemented between 2021 and 2043.
The first step is the preparation phase, which requires data collection to identify the most relevant sites for future landings and a potential permanent base. Thus, several unmanned devices must be sent directly to Mars to achieve this goal. This phase has already started, as in 2021, the Tian Wen 1 mission landed the Zhurong rover on the Red Planet. The robot, dotted with six scientific instruments, including a high-resolution topography camera, aims to study the planet's atmosphere and soil composition. By 2028, Tian Wen 2 will replace Tian Wen 1 mission and, hopefully, bring soil samples from the Red Planet to Earth.
The second step of the plan will consist of several crewed missions planned for 2033, 2035, 2037, 2041, and 2043. Those missions will allow China to build the first foundations of a lasting presence on a planet and set up the equipment necessary for a minimum viable base.
The last step will be to create a large fleet of spacecraft shuttling between Earth and Mars, able to carry large quantities of materials and equipment.
It is essential to remember that the country's different Martian missions are integrated into a larger landscape of programs and technologies to bring China to the forefront of space exploration. Hence, future Martian missions may leverage other flagship programs such as the Tiangong Space Station, currently under construction, or the new Long March 9th rocket expected in the 2030s-time frame. Finally, China also wants to develop several technologies to support Mars exploration, including carrier rockets, shuttle rockets or landing, and ascent vehicles.
The Zhu Rong Mars Rover, pictured next to the landing platform, is on the red planet's surface. Source: EPA-EFE
To support its space ambitions and notably its efforts to launch satellites, build a space station, and land on the Moon and Mars, China has developed a rich and diversified range of launchers that can fulfill all the country's needs and easy access to space. Consequently, it has become one of the most active space launchers, with more than 207 launch missions completed between 2016 and 2021.
The country’s extensive range is also used for commercial flights developed by several organizations. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, via its subsidiary China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), created the most popular range of Chinese launchers: the Long March rockets. The family notably includes the Long March 2C, 2D, 2F, 3A, 3B, 3C, 4B, 4C, 5, 5B, 6, 6A, 7, 7A, 8, and 11 launchers that are regularly used for commercial launches. Among the different players, China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation Limited (CASIC) provides efficient launching capabilities with the rockets Kuaizhou 1 and 1A.
Long March rocket family, past, present, and future, Source: Memorian-QN
Besides the rocket currently in service, CALT is developing a new generation of light launchers named Smart Dragon with a small maximum payload of 200kg in low earth orbit. The rocket has, until now, only performed one successful commercial launch in 2019. In the future, China is aiming to push further its development of new-generation manned carrier rockets, high-thrust solid-fuel carrier rockets heavy-lift launch vehicles. On his side, CASIC is working on Kuaizhou 21 and Kuaizhou 31 with a targeted payload of 20 and 70 tonnes.
Although state-own companies are predominant in the Chinese aerospace industry, private companies have also started to develop their capabilities. In recent years, two private companies have developed small launchers to bring a payload of approximately 300kg in low Earth and sun-synchronous orbit. The first to achieve this performance was i-Space with Hyperbola-1, launched on July 25th, 2019. However, apart from this successful first attempt, the three subsequent launches failed in 2021 and 2022. The second private company to succeed has been Galactic Energy, with the Ceres-1 achieving two successful shots in a row in November 2020 and December 2021.
The success of these two private companies has nourished the appetite of other competitors that have received even though they have not achieved any commercial launch yet: Beijing Tianbing Technology Co, Jiangsu Deep Blue Aerospace Technology Co., Orien Space Shandong Technology, Landspace Technology Corporation, Link Space Aerospace Technology Inc or One Space Technology Group.
Liftoff of a Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center Source: Ourspace/CNSA