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China’s Space Power and Rocket Technologies - Recent developments; By Annunthra Rangan

Updated: Apr 17

Pic courtesy: Air Power Asia

Article: 14/2024

Brief history of China’s Space power over the years:

China’s space program takes us back to the 1950s when the Soviet Union was still a prominent power. PRC initiated its first ballistic missiles and other rocket development projects as a response to the United States of America and USSR’s geopolitical pressures. However scholars predict that China used its first military rocket during the Sung Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279).

In 1232 A.D., during the Battle of Kai-feng-fu, rockets made their debut as weaponry in an attempt by the Chinese to fend off Mongol invaders. Employing a combination of fire arrows and potentially gunpowder-launched grenades, they sought to repulse the incursion. The fire arrows, rudimentary versions of solid-propellant rockets, consisted of tubes sealed at one end and filled with gunpowder, attached to long sticks. Upon ignition, the gunpowder rapidly combusted, generating fire, smoke, and gas that propelled the arrow through the air. The stick served as a basic form of guidance, maintaining the arrow's trajectory. The efficacy of these "arrows of flying fire" remains uncertain, although historical accounts suggest that a single grenade had the capacity to engulf an area spanning 2,000 square feet in flames.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Kai-Keng, the Mongols went on to produce their own rockets. Over the span of the 13th to the 15th centuries, these rockets became integral components of Mongol offensives, employed in assaults on both Japan and Baghdad. Among the innovations of this era was the rocket-powered flying chair devised by Wan-Hu, a Chinese official, with the aid of numerous assistants. This contraption, positioned between two sturdy wooden stakes, featured a configuration of two sizable kites affixed to the chair, each supporting forty-seven fire-arrow rockets.

Following the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957, Mao Zedong, during the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on May 17, 1958, resolved to elevate China to the status of a global power. This vision materialised in Project 581, aimed at placing a satellite in orbit by 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic of China (PRC). However, the ambition proved unattainable, prompting a shift in focus towards the development of sounding rockets.

The program's initial milestone was the successful launch of the T-7M sounding rocket, reaching an altitude of 8 km on February 19, 1960. This marked China's inaugural indigenous rocket achievement, earning commendation from Mao Zedong as a promising start to domestic rocket development. Yet, the program encountered adversity with the abrupt cessation of Soviet technological support following the 1960 Sino-Soviet split.

Undeterred, Chinese scientists persevered under severe resource constraints, culminating in the launch of the first "missile 1059" on December 5, 1960. Fueled by alcohol and liquid oxygen, this achievement represented a great milestone—a successful emulation of Soviet missile technology. Subsequently renamed Dongfeng-1 (DF-1), this accomplishment highlighted China's emergence as a player in the global space arena amidst challenging circumstances.

China achieved its inaugural milestone in space exploration in 1970 with the launch of its first artificial satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1, from the Jiuquan launch centre in Gansu province. Although modest in technological sophistication, this feat propelled China to become the fifth nation to achieve satellite orbit, following the Soviet Union, the US, France, and Japan.

Emboldened by the success of Dong Fang Hong 1, China unveiled ambitious plans in 1971 for Project 714, aiming to send two astronauts into space by 1973. However, the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution disrupted these aspirations. Political upheaval led to the cancellation of the program, with tragic consequences for Zhao Jiuzhang, the head of China's satellite initiative, who faced persecution and ultimately took his own life.

In 1992, China announced Project 921, heralding a concerted effort to develop and deploy crewed spacecraft. This initiative bore fruit in 2003 when China, joining the ranks of the US and Russia, launched astronaut Yang Liwei aboard the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft, marking the nation's first human spaceflight.

Subsequent years witnessed a surge in China's space program investments, propelled by rapid economic growth. Research and development funding for spacecraft manufacturing surged from $22.6 million in 2000 to $433.4 million by 2014, according to reports cited by The South China Morning Post.

China further solidified its space exploration prowess with landmark achievements, including a rover mission to Mars in 2020, a historic soft landing on the far side of the Moon in 2019, and the retrieval of lunar surface samples.

China has a leading space program globally, powered by its Long March rocket series and four spaceports (Jiuquan, Taiyuan, Xichang, Wenchang). It consistently ranks high in annual orbital launches. Its satellite fleet serves various purposes like communication, navigation, remote sensing, and scientific research. China has expanded its space initiatives beyond low Earth orbit to explore the Moon and Mars, putting it alongside the US and Russia in independent human spaceflight capabilities.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force oversee most of China's space initiatives, including the astronaut corps and the Chinese Deep Space Network. Key programs include the China Manned Space Program, BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, and Gaofen Observation. Recent missions like Chang'e-3, Chang'e-4, Chang'e-5, Tianwen-1, and the Tiangong space station highlight PRC’s stern commitment to space exploration and technological progress.

November 2022 marked the completion of China's Tiangong space station, a project initiated in 2011. Comprising three modules, the station accommodates three astronauts, expandable to six during crew rotations. Equipped with state-of-the-art scientific instruments, including the world's first space-based cold atomic clock system, Tiangong serves as a pivotal platform for cutting-edge research.

China launched the expansive Yaogan-41 optical satellite into geostationary orbit on December 15,2023. In addition to this, China has deployed approximately five Huoyan-1 early warning satellites. Furthermore, PRC is currently conducting tests on a quantum-enabled communications satellite, a development that holds the potential to establish communication networks that are virtually impervious to interception or decryption.

With the International Space Station (ISS) slated to conclude operations in 2030, Tiangong emerges as a potential successor, poised to assume a central role in advancing scientific exploration beyond Earth's confines.

Recent developments and Future plans:

The recent advancements in China's space sector and military initiatives specify its growing capabilities and strategic ambitions in near-space exploration and defence. From the successful launch of powerful rockets by private startups like Orienspace to the development of reusable rocket technology by state-owned companies, China is making sounds in space innovation. Moreover, the establishment of the Near-Space Command highlights China's commitment to defending its interests in the space boundary, with a focus on surveillance and intelligence gathering using cutting-edge technologies. These reflect China's aspirations to assert dominance in near-space domains and address emerging challenges in military strategy, including the development of hypersonic weapons and overcoming technological barriers.

China’s Mega Launch of Gravity 1:

Beijing-based startup Orienspace achieved great height by successfully launching the most powerful rocket developed by the Chinese private sector so far. The Gravity-1 rocket lifted off from a ship off the coast of eastern Shandong province and placed three remote-sensing satellites into orbit, according to Orienspace's statement. Established in 2020 by veterans of China's state space agencies, Orienspace had initially planned to debut the Gravity-1 rocket in the latter half of 2023.

With the ability to carry a payload of up to 6,500 kg (14,330 lb) into low earth orbit, the Gravity-1 is the most potent launch vehicle developed by a private Chinese enterprise. This inaugural launch has the potential to spur an increase in commercial satellite launches into low- and mid-altitude orbits within the growing private sector. Last year, Orienspace's CEO revealed that the company had already secured orders for the launch of hundreds of satellites.

According to Orienspace, the Gravity-1 can deploy as many as 30 satellites in a single launch, offering impressive efficiency. Additionally, the company claimed it can organise a launch in under seven days, and in some cases, within 24 hours. The rocket's capability to launch from a mobile sea platform expands the range of potential launch sites. China initiated its first commercial rocket launch at sea in 2020 with the Long March 11 developed by the state, aiming to reduce risks associated with rocket stages descending over populated areas.

The successful maiden flight of the Gravity-1 rocket establishes Orienspace as the fifth private Chinese firm to operate its own carrier rocket, alongside i-Space, Galactic Energy, Space Pioneer, and LandSpace, according to reports from Chinese state media.

Reusable rockets:

A Chinese state-owned company has reached a milestone by successfully conducting a launch and landing test as part of its efforts to develop a reusable rocket. The test involved the Kuaizhou reusable technology test rocket, which took off from a designated pad at test facilities on January 26. During the test, the rocket hovered in the air for nine seconds before returning to land at the takeoff area, with the entire flight lasting 22 seconds.

This test was carried out by Expace (CASIC Rocket Technology Company), operating under CASIC, a well-known Chinese state-owned defence and space contractor. While CASIC plays a crucial role in China's state space industry, it is pursuing the development of its own launch services independent of its sister corporation CASC, which manufactures China's Long March rockets.

In addition to Expace, other entities in China's space sector are also advancing in reusable rocket technology. Beijing-based iSpace conducted a pair of longer-duration, higher-altitude tests late last year, with its vehicle successfully landing at a separate target during the latter trial. Landspace, another startup, conducted a hop test with a stainless steel methane prototype rocket at Jiuquan in January, reaching an altitude of 1,150 feet (350 meters). Landscape plans to launch the fully reusable Zhuque-3 rocket, similar to SpaceX's Falcon 9, in 2025.

Furthermore, state-owned spinoff CAS Space is developing its reusable Kinetica-2 rocket, aiming for a launch in 2025 and has conducted tests using a jet-powered prototype to evaluate guidance, navigation, and control systems necessary for rocket landings. Additionally, commercial firm Galactic Energy conducted a similar test last summer and aims to perform the first launch of the Pallas-1 kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket later this year, with plans to eventually land and reuse the first stage.

China’s new Initiatives:

1) The municipal government of Beijing has unveiled a comprehensive action plan designed to propel the growth of the commercial space sector within the city over the next five years. Entitled the "Beijing Action Plan for Accelerating the Innovation and Development of the Commercial Space Industry (2024-2028)," this initiative comprises 18 distinct policy measures aimed at fostering innovation, supporting advanced research and development initiatives, and cultivating an industrial ecosystem.

Central to the action plan is the strategic mapping of the commercial aerospace industry chain, coupled with targeted support for cutting-edge R&D activities. The plan also prioritises the enhancement of development guarantees and the cultivation of a high-calibre industrial environment conducive to growth and innovation. A key aspect of the initiative involves promoting cross-border technology integration to bolster the emergence of internationally competitive innovative enterprises and industry clusters. Notably, the establishment of "Beijing Rocket Street," featuring a pioneering reusable rocket technology innovation centre, is slated to commence construction in April with completion expected by 2025. This aims to facilitate breakthroughs in crucial technologies associated with reusable rocketry.

Measurable targets outlined in the plan include attracting and nurturing over 100 high-tech enterprises, more than 50 specialised and innovative companies, and a minimum of five unicorn companies—defined as those with valuations exceeding $1 billion—by 2028. Furthermore, Yizhuang aspires to establish itself as a leading hub for reusable rocket technology by the same year, while also striving to develop a commercial aerospace industry cluster valued at 50 billion yuan ($7 billion).

In a bid to enhance the commercial space sector's infrastructure and capabilities, Beijing has entered into strategic cooperation agreements with entities representing the newly-established Hainan Commercial Launch Site and the Haiyang spaceport in Shandong province. These partnerships aim to facilitate regular launches and foster inter-regional industrial collaboration, thereby driving sustained growth and development across the sector.

2) China's space agency (CSA), the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), recently oversaw the return of three astronauts who had been stationed on the Tiangong space station since May 2023. Now, the agency is exploring collaborations with private-sector companies for future space missions to which it is ready to fully fund.

CMSA has undertaken a thorough evaluation of proposals submitted by privately-owned rocket companies for potential cargo transport missions to the Chinese space station. This announcement coincided with October 25, 2023, just a day prior to the successful launch of Shenzhou 17. The mission effectively transported a fresh team of three astronauts to the Tiangong space station.

In 2023, China's private aerospace sector reached a crucial point, witnessing the emergence of companies involved in satellite production and launch. Some leading firms have achieved valuations exceeding 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion). The private aerospace sector in China has received strong policy backing. According to the Forward Industry Research Institute, the market for China's private aerospace industry grew from 376.4 billion yuan in 2015 to 836.2 billion yuan in 2019, showing a compound annual growth rate of 22.1%. It is expected to surpass 2.4 trillion yuan by 2024. SpaceX was one of two companies to secure a combined $3.6 billion cargo-flight contract in 2008, just two years after its first rocket launch. Since then, it has successfully bid for other NASA projects, including a $2.9 billion contract in 2021 to transport astronauts to the moon.

3) China has recently established its fifth military command, known as the Near-Space Command, under the Central Military Commission. This addition to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is tasked with defending against threats within the space boundary at altitudes ranging from 20 to 100 kilometres. Utilising technologies like solar-powered drones, robotics, and spy balloons, the Near-Space Command will conduct surveillance and gather intelligence. Although still in its developmental phase, the Near-Space Command aims to enhance its understanding of near-space combat operations and standardise its procedures, as outlined by researchers from the National University of Defence Technology.

China sees near-space as a relatively untapped domain for military applications and aims to establish dominance in this area, particularly as major military powers have shown less interest. China has already made advancements in anti-satellite missiles (ASAT) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), considering them crucial for gaining strategic advantages over adversaries. Hypersonic weapons, in particular, are seen as a formidable asset for targeting enemy assets with unparalleled speed and manoeuvrability.

Despite these advancements, challenges remain, including the "black barrier" phenomenon that affects the control of hypersonic weapons. China has been investing in 6G technology based on electromagnetic waves to overcome this barrier, but progress has been slow due to restrictions imposed by the US on critical technology access. China views hypersonic weapons as potential first-strike assets against enemy targets, capable of disrupting command and control systems and targeting secure weapon launch sites. In the context of US-China military tensions, the US strategy of preemptive strikes against China's command facilities has prompted China to focus on near-space operations to gather early intelligence and potentially counter such strikes with hypersonic weapons.

The Recent failure: Lunar Mission

China's lunar mission encountered an unexpected setback as two technology test satellites, intended for a journey to the moon, failed to reach their planned orbit. During a launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre using a Long March 2C rocket, China experienced an unusual problem in an otherwise smooth space mission. The mission's flaw was attributed to the malfunction of the rocket's upper stage, the Yuanzheng-1S. Despite successful operations of the rocket's initial stages, the satellites were not inserted into their designated orbit as intended. According to Xinhua, efforts are underway to rectify this issue.

This marks as an unprecedented failure for the Yuanzheng-1S upper stage, previously reliable in deploying satellites into higher orbits since 2015. The failure presents a setback to China's aspirations in deep-space communication and navigation, particularly concerning the testing of crucial technologies for laser communications and data transmission in space. Despite this setback, efforts persist in advancing China's next-generation space station in lunar orbit, essential for future crewed moon landings and facilitating material transfers between Earth and the moon.

India’s implications:

The establishment of China's Near-Space Command presents a strategic advantage for China over India, particularly in the Himalayan region. Given that much of the border terrain between the two countries is at high altitude, China's major air bases and command centres near India's northern border are also situated at significant elevations above sea level. For instance, locations like Hotan air base (1424 metres), Lanzhou air base (1600 metres), Gargunsa air base (4350 metres), Kashgar airport (1380 metres), and Lhasa Airport (3600 metres) pose unique challenges for military operations.

In contrast, India's major forward air bases are located in low-altitude plain areas, which makes it difficult for China's ground-based radars under the Western Theatre Command to detect incoming Indian aircraft for potential strikes. Additionally, the Indian Air Force (IAF) enjoys a comparative advantage over the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in air operations within the border areas, given that IAF's fighter aircraft can carry heavier payloads than those of PLAAF operating from high-altitude terrain.

Moreover, China's ability to target India's air infrastructure established in low-altitude areas with hypersonic weapons further complicates India's defensive posture. India's existing Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) system and the Russian-made S-400 anti-ballistic missile defence system are ineffective against moving objects in the near-space domain, highlighting the vulnerability of India's air defence capabilities.

Given these developments, India may need to consider strategic partnerships, such as joining the US-Japan collaboration, to develop anti-hypersonic interceptors. This would serve as a deterrent against potential pre-emptive attacks by China using hypersonic weapons, thus strengthening India's defence capabilities in the face of evolving military threats.

India should prioritise and invest vastly in developing launch-on-demand capabilities in the near future. Establishing an indigenous constellation of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites equipped with advanced optical and hyperspectral sensors is imperative given the prevailing circumstances. Relying on foreign constellations for critical positioning, navigation, and timing requirements is not sustainable for military operations.

Given China's advancements in eavesdropping and monitoring activities within India's vicinity, it is essential to develop high-speed satellite communications, a satellite-based internet of things, and a high end ground-based infrastructure to mitigate potential national security threats posed by Beijing. According to the "Military Balance" report released by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in February 2024, China currently operates 245 military satellites, a stark contrast to India's 26. Furthermore, PRC's possession of reusable spacecraft and advanced counter-space technology, as highlighted by the London-based think tank, alerts the urgency for India to develop its space capabilities for strategic defence purposes.

(Ms. Annunthra Rangan is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)


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