Chinese rocket display

Watch this space - China in ascendant while US declines

Mark Williamson witnesses China’s upward trajectory in space technology at the 64th International Astronautical Congress in Beijing.

Space exploration has always had a fairly high-profile political element, from the Cold War days of the ‘space race’ to the cross-border collaboration that brought about the International Space Station, placing Russia and America essentially on the same team. Today, with US technology export constraints banning, among other things, the launch of US-made components on Chinese rockets, it is easy to characterise China as the new adversary. But the world has changed since America raced against the erstwhile Soviet Union to put a man on the Moon.Arguably, the annual meeting of minds that is the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) shows this better than most. This year’s conference and accompanying trade exhibition - held in Beijing from 23-27 September - put China and its developments in space technology centre-stage for the more than 3,300 delegates from 74 countries in attendance.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Li Yuanchao, vice-president of the People’s Republic of China, called for peace and cooperation in the exploration and exploitation of space. With clear references to the text of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, he proclaimed that “all countries have an equal right to share resources in space” and that “China is willing to share experience with all countries...for the benefit of all mankind”. And in case anyone doubted that assertion, Li pointed out that China had already signed no less than 71 cooperation agreements with 26 countries.

Indeed, few in the audience would harbour any doubt that China has much to share. In the context of the “many challenges” faced by the world, added Li, “China is ready to join the international community”.

At a Heads of Agency plenary, Nasa administrator Charles Bolden faced the question of when we could expect to see some form of cooperation between China and the US and delivered the customary political deflection, replying: “Partnership requires patience.” Bolden did, however, add that Nasa’s proposed asteroid deflection mission of 2025 (which may or may not actually happen) would be “open to cooperation”.

Speaking from the same platform, the head of the China National Space Administration, Ma Xingrui, said that although China was not yet party to the multinational effort, the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, that could change. “I don’t see any problem if the organisation is willing to invite us,” he confirmed.

No-one expects policies to be decided at such open events, but it is interesting to hear the two space powers apparently speaking the same language. The acceptance of a new space power is as much about the newcomer proving itself as it is about national space policy.

As the European Space Agency knows only too well, it can take decades to prove to Nasa that a non-American technology can be trusted, and it is often only under the duress of acute financial constraints that foreign contributions are accepted.

However, the situation with China is quite different from the political competition of the 1960s between America and the Soviet Union, because while America is on a descending path, China is in the ascendant. The only question is when the curves will cross.

In the newsworthy field of manned spaceflight, China has been active since 2003, when it became only the third nation to deliver a man into space with home-grown technology. Since then, it has launched missions to prove docking, spacewalking and general survival techniques in a carefully considered, step-by-step approach towards its publicised aim of landing a Chinese citizen on the Moon, perhaps as soon as 2025.

China has begun with unmanned missions: namely, the Chang’e 1 and 2 orbiters of 2007 and 2010 and the Chang’e 3 lander expected later this year. The latter will carry an automated rover to explore the immediate vicinity of the landing area. Current plans show Chang’e 4 as a backup and Chang’e 5 as a pre-2020 sample return mission.

China is often criticised for not being specific about mission dates, but this is probably because the nation’s space programme is led more by engineering conservatism than media-savvy politicking. The Western alternative of announcing dates, and then delays or cancellations, is no better. That said, Xu Dazhe, the chairman of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, gave the launch date of Chang’e 3 as 13 December, arguably another example of increasing transparency.

Congress visitors had only the Beijing traffic to criticise during a tour of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology plant: the stages of the Long March rocket that will launch Chang’e 3 were displayed in one of three large assembly halls.

Xu was clearly proud of the Long March rocket, which has evolved through several variants since the 1970s. “It has conducted 181 flights at a 95.58 per cent success rate,” he said. A total of 232 satellites had been launched, 105 of which are still operational. Chinese satellites already serve 80 per cent of the world’s population, Xu said, and cover 58 per cent of the land area.

In the commercial satellite arena, China has developed its Dong Fang Hong (‘East is Red’) communications satellite platform to the point where its technology is equal to the West’s, and has proved this by selling a number of satellites to foreign buyers. Meanwhile, its domestic imaging satellites are gaining fast on Western capabilities, as shown by its DF-2 satellite, due to launch in December, with its 80cm monochrome ground resolution.

As indicated by the dozens of Chinese papers across multiple parallel IAC sessions and a good supply of documentation at the accompanying exhibition, China is keen to show its capabilities and understanding of anything from spacecraft solar arrays to onboard computers. Quoting President Xi Jinping, Xu confirmed that China is “developing its space industry to build a space power”. Whether you believe in cooperation or competition, this is no time for Western complacency.

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