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Space Developments of China and its implications for India; by Vithiyapathy Purushothaman (李拯)

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

Article 57/2020

(The paper is based on an International webinar presented by the author at C3S on October 17, 2020)

Humans began exploring the land, ocean and with the advancement of technology, new destinations were in search in deep space for ensuring the survival in this universe. China being one of the ancient civilizations on earth, has its historical observation of space and even today its culture revolves around its lunar calendar.  From the history of China, we could see that in 970AD, the flying arrow was invented by Feng Ji Shen. It is a kind of firecracker that we are using in our festivals. In the 16th century, Wan Hu made a rocket-propelled chair. The base of the chair was tied with flying arrows and he sat on the chair to propel it to fly in the sky. But the result was negative. With these evolving history, Qian XueSen kick-started China’s Space program and he is called as the father of nations ballistic missile and space program. Additionally, by the return of Chinese scientists from the US, in 1956 Ballistic missile program has begun. From 1956 till 1993, the formation of different space departments of China has paved a way to the successful establishment of Chinas National Space Administration. China’s space program is seen in three main objectives such as military, political and economic view. Space development will give information superiority as a result it gains political and military benefits. Space-based applications are providing social and economic benefits.  The paper will explore Chinas space developments as well as its advantages in utilizing this information superiority in Space Diplomacy. Additionally, it will explore more about Chinas ambitious projects such as Five-meter Apparatus Spherical Telescope (FAST), Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP), QUESS, Altra-fast travel to figure out the clear picture of Chinas space program destinations in upcoming decades. Chinas recent space developments can be seen through six categories of developments, such as Space transportation program, Earth Observation satellites, Beidou Navigation Satellite, Manned Space flight program and development of Tiangong space station, Chang’e lunar exploration and Tianwen-1 Mars exploration program.

China enhanced its space exploration capacity by its independent innovation and its access to outer space. It made constant improvement in its space infrastructure and smooth implementation of major space projects. Firstly, Space transportation system of China, Long March rocket family (Chang Zheng) plays a vital role in placing the satellites and modules in the designated orbit. Earlier developments of Long March Rocket family from Long March 1 to Long March 4 has a feature as same as Dong Feng missiles such as DF-4 and DF5 which is IRBM and ICBM missiles respectively. But later considering to maximize the payload new generation rockets adopted cryogenic propellants.  The payload capacity of new-generation Long March 8 and 9 was focused to attain super heavy lift and reusable capabilities. Secondly, the Chinese government initiated its China’s High Definition Earth Observation Satellite (CHEOS) program in 2010. The main objective of the program is to utilize sufficient Near Real-Time observation data. Accordingly, to achieve this objective several High definition earth observation satellites, weather satellites (Fen Yun), ocean observation satellites (Hai Yang), resource satellites (Zi Yuan), remote sensing satellites (Yao Gan), topographic mapping satellites (Tian Hui) and super view satellites (Gao Jing) were placed in the designated lower earth, medium and geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO). These satellites made a great contribution to city planning, weather forecasting, climate variation, ocean monitoring, environment and disaster management. China is also intended towards improving global and regional cooperation on earth observation for public benefits. The economic and social benefits of space-based application have been noticeably advanced.

Thirdly, Beidou Navigation System is Chinas indigenous global navigation system started providing global service since December 2015. The 35th satellite of BDS-3 was launched on June 23rd, 2020 and commissioned on August 3rd, 2020. Since 2000, China has launched 53 Beidou satellites where it employed three step-strategy for developing all-weather, all-time high accuracy PNT (positioning, navigation and timing) for global users. Initially, BDS-1 provided service to Chinese mainland users and then improved its coverage though BDS-2 to reach Asia-pacific users and finally BDS-3 achieved global service. China being the fifth largest arms exporter of the world, its advancement of Beidou navigation will increase its technical and strategic advantage for its sale of both arms and technology. Fourthly, Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) program which was earlier named as Project 921-2 was began in 1992. This space station program has three phases where it places the target vehicle, establish the laboratory and host their taikonauts in the station. It launched its first space laboratory Tiangong-1 in 2011 and then placed Tiangong-2 in 2016 and the larger station is to be assembled in 2020-2022.  Upon completion, it will have a lifetime of 10years. Fifthly, Chang’e Lunar exploration program China scheduled its lunar exploration in four phases. From 2007 till 2010, phase one has achieved lunar orbital mission by launching Chang’e 1 and 2. In phase two, Chang’e 3 mission made China’s lunar landing possible when Yutu(Jade Rabbit)-1landed in Mare Imbrium in 2013. China achieved soft landing by Queqiao-1 (relay satellite) and Chang’e 4 in 2018. It marked first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon. It landed in Von Karman with Yutu-2 rover. Phase three is scheduling to collect and return the sample to the earth through the launch of Chang’e 5 by the end of 2020 and finally, through phase four it intends to establish international lunar research station named In-situ Resource Utilization System (ISRU). Thus, ISRU is focused to practice collecting, processing, storing and use of materials manufactured on astronomical objects. Other associated space programs may utilize these processed materials for creating objects or even it may be transported to earth.

Finally, the Tian Wen -1 interplanetary mission to Mars launched on July 23rd, 2020, which consists of an orbiter, deployable camera, lander and rover. In September 2020, Tianwen-1 has completed its second mid-course correction and deployed camera which took a selfie of transiting Tianwen-1 and tested its Wi-Fi connection. Notably, in the year 2020, July month has become as a mars mission month. The United Arab Emirates have also sent its Hope Orbiter and the United States launched its Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and an attached helicopter drone in it for exploring Martian surface. All these three missions will reach Mars by February 2021. Thus, upon the success of Tianwen-1 objectives, China will achieve a major milestone in deep space exploration. By these advancements in space, China’s space diplomacy is reaching the BRI countries in Beidou coordinates. China is gaining its information superiority through this space programs as a result it is harvesting economic, social and strategic benefits.

Scholars around the world questions about China’s necessity for increasing its heavy-lift capability as well as what is it going to manufacture from the materials that it collects from asteroids, lunar or mars surface. Some of the possible answers were pointing towards china’s recent innovations and schedules for space development projects such as Space-based solar power (SBSP), QUESS and FAST.  Therefore, these space developments of china are heading towards sustainable deep space exploration where it could harness the energy and extract resources from asteroids, lunar and mars surface to develop the required materials and look deep into space exploration. In 2015, China expressed its intention to build a Space-Based solar power (SBSP) station approximately 35000 km away from earth and in GEO. The photovoltaic cell is capable of generating 40 times more power when in space than earth-based solar cells. With huge solar panels generated will then be sent via microwaves or laser beams to an earth receiving station. Placing these heavy photovoltaic cells in LEO, need a heavy lift capacity. Therefore, as one of the objective Long March is also upgraded for meeting the demands. In the primary phase, 100kw of energy production was targeted to be achieved by 2025 by successful completion of SBSP at LEO. And further, the targets were set for 2035, to increase its capacity from 100kw to 100 MW. By 2050, China schedules to construct its first commercial level SBSP at GEO. Scholars have already begun integrating the ideas of SBSP, on-orbit customized 3D printing as well as ISRU for extracting the resources from asteroid and moon, storing and processing it at ISRU and finally producing the photovoltaic cell. Apart from other claims for building a lunar base for extracting Helium-3 as a future fuel, Space-based resources such as Silicon and aluminium at lunar or asteroid could possibly be collected for the purpose of building these solar power productions units. Asteroids and near-earth objects make it easier for spacecraft to dock, park and separate. Therefore, upon completion, ISRU could act as a base to further produce these photovoltaic cells to support the expanding the capacity of the SBSP.

On the other side, Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) has begun its first light in September 2016 but after three years of testing and commissioning period, it was declared as fully operational on 11 January 2020. It is the world’s largest filled aperture radio telescope. Quantum Experiment at Space Scale (QUESS) projects was also one of the unique indigenous development of China that sends photons of data through laser beams. Thus, improving its hack free data transmission. When other projects working at harnessing energy and resources at space. Upon further up-gradation, QUESS project could support the communication between earth and base station.  Notable other innovative ideas such as Altra fast global travel that works on hypersonic flying technology and reusable carrier rockets technology aims to transport passengers to any destinations in the world within one hour. This ambitious space development goal of China is said to be scheduled to achieve in 2045.  Notably, China’s private startup iSpace is aiming to flight test its reusable rocket named Hyperbola-2 in 2021 where Hyperbola-1 was flight tested in July 2019.

China is building its BRI space information corridor by its satellites and by its near future bases in the moon and other astronomical units. China’s Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capability was demonstrated in 2007 and in 2013 it demonstrated its robotic arm on the SY-7 satellite which has the capability to grab the satellites. Since it is seen as a strategic threat to the satellites in space, in 2019, India test-fired its missile from earth to shoot down one of its own satellites for demonstrating its strategic capability in space. India as a space-faring nation has its equivalent lunar mission named Chandrayaan, Mars mission named Mangalyaan and other deep-space mission objectives that were listed to be achieved in near future. Remarkably, ISRO’s first solar mission, Aditya-L1 is also in the streamline for the launch in 2022. In this information age, development of space technology is becoming an asset for humans and in turn, its benefits were seen in strategic, social and economic returns. Beyond other political differences, India and China share a common goal of space exploration, from Mars to the far side of the moon, and from asteroids to deep space. In 2014, Memorandum of Understanding was signed between ISRO and CNSA, to encourage exchange and cooperation for peaceful use and exploration of outer space. Further, space cooperation outline was inked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his China visit in 2015. It was focused to provide specific programs for both sides to cooperate in space-based meteorological, lunar and deep space exploration, satellite navigation components and remote sensing missions from 2015 and 2020.

(Mr. Vithiyapathy Purushothaman(李拯), Ph.D. scholar, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), Hefei, China and Associate Member, C3S. The views expressed are personal.)

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