In the week that Chinese spacecraft accomplished the milestone of an automated docking in orbit, DAVID KANE provides an overview of China’ s ambitious and far-reaching civil spaceflight programmes.
This is a full article published in Aerospace International: November 2011
China has been launching rockets into space for some 50 years, with its first domestic liquid fuelled rocket being launched in 1960. However, the development of its space programme began very slowly. While the US and Russia competed to put a man on the Moon, China struggled to get their spacecraft off the ground. Between 1966 and 1976 only five launches took place. This slow launch rate was due to the financial and political turmoil that accompanied the Cultural Revolution. When China emerged from that period it was clear that their domestic space technology lagged far behind that of other space faring nations.
Despite this slow start, China’s space industry was soon to explode. By the 1990s China emerged as a major provider of commercial launch services. During the first decade of the 21st century China became the third country to put a man in space. By 2010 China averaged one rocket launch every two months. In sheer numbers its space infrastructure is still fairly limited; in 2010 China only had 55 operational satellites. However, it is China’s increase in space activity that has caused nations and companies around the world to stop and take note.
The rationale behind China’s space activities are economic, scientific, technological and social. Also its space programme is a symbol of its global stature, and growing technical expertise. China wants to be a major player in the global space economy. In its 11th five-year plan, which ended in 2010, the Chinese government called for greater integration of market mechanisms into its space programme to foster competition and generate products and services that could earn China a larger portion of the global commercial space market.
Currently China’s most marketable space products are its launch vehicles. China’s sole operational launch vehicle family is the Chang Zheng (CZ) or Long March family. The Long March rocket uses liquid bi-propellant engines and was developed from China’s DongFang ballistic missile which has its roots in Russian ballistic missile technology. To date there are three operational series of Long March rockets, the CZ-2, the CZ-3 and the CZ-4. Currently the CZ-4 is the most powerful series and is capable of lifting 8,000kg into low Earth orbit (LEO) and 5,000kg into geostationary orbit (GEO).
There are three main launch sites in China. Jiuquan is the main staging point for manned launches and is situated in the central province of Gansu. Xichang, in the south central province of Sichuan, supports launches to GEO. Taiyuan is situated in the eastern province of Shanxi and facilitates launches to polar orbit.
The Chinese Communist Party’s National Guidance for Medium and Long-Term Plans for Science and Technology Development in China outlines further development goals for the Long March family during the 2006-2020 period. It mandates the development of a non-toxic, pollution-free, high-performance, low-cost, powerful-thrust launch vehicle. These guidelines also mandated the development of a liquid oxygen, liquid kerosene engine capable of producing 120 tons of thrust and a liquid hydrogen liquid oxygen engine capable of 50 tons of thrust. The CZ-5 series is currently being developed to meet these requirements and will rival Boeing’s Delta IV Heavy. A 200 hectare (500 acre) high tech manufacturing base is being constructed for the production of the CZ-4 and CZ-5 series rockets in the northern port city of Tianjin. A launch facility is also being constructed on Hainan Island to take advantage of the extra speed gained by launching near the equator. This facility will be the launch site of the CZ-5 series.
The Long March rocket has proven to be a very reliable launch vehicle. The global insurance underwriting community now rates the Long March family among European and Russian launch vehicles in regards to reliability.
China’s commercial satellites prospects are limited due to foreign competition. Development goals for Chinese satellites during the 2006-2020 period are to improve and develop remote sensing satellites and associated ground stations; further develop communication and broadcasting satellite technologies; move toward commercialisation of communications and broadcast satellite services; increase the number and quality of space technology experiments; develop a space telescope; and improve and develop remote sensing satellites and associated ground stations.
As of 2010 only two Chinese companies operated domestically manufactured communication satellites. China’s series of communication/relay satellites are named Dongfanghong (the East is Red). Dongfanghong 3 and Dongfanghong 4 are currently the only two types of this series in operation. Dongfanghong 3 is a medium capacity communication/relay satellite. It first orbited in 1994 and a Dongfanghong 3 satellite was launched in support of China’s first manned space flight. Dongfanghong 4 is a high-capacity communication satellite. Four Dongfanghong 4 satellites have been launched. They are SinoSat 2 and SinoSat 6 which were built for Chinese customers, NigComSat-1 which was built for the Nigerian government, and VeneSat-1 which was built for the Venezuelan government. Of these four only VeneSat-1 was completely successful.
China’s weather satellites series is called Fengyun (Wind and Cloud). There are four types of Fengyun satellite. The first Fengyun satellite was launched in 1998. Since then ten Fengyun satellites have been placed in orbit. As of 2010, five Fengyun satellites were still operational.
China currently operates three series of civilian Earth observation satellites. The China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellites (CBERS) is its oldest civilian Earth observation satellite series. CBERS was jointly developed with Brazil and its main mission is to provide imagery of Earth’s surface for agricultural, environmental protection, hydrological, ocean resource monitoring, forestry and geological purposes. Three CBERS satellites have been launched since 1999 and one remains in operation. At least two more CBERS satellites are planned. Ziyuan is the Chinese domestic equivalent of the CBERS series.
Huanjing (Environment) and Haiyang (Oceans) are China’s second and third civilian Earth observation satellite series. Huanjing is a small environment and disaster-monitoring satellite series and, as of 2010, two had been launched. Haiyang is an ocean observation satellite series and is used for monitoring oceanic resources and port buildings, and for environmental and pollution studies.
Beidou (Northern Dipper) Compass system is China’s domestic positioning navigation and timing system. It is the equivalent of the US GPS system and the EU Galileo positioning system. Its development was motivated by the Chinese military’s desire to become independent of GPS. First generation Beidou was launched in 2000. It was offered for public use but was not commercially viable, due to the fact that the cost of one positioning unit was ten times more than that of one GPS unit. The second generation Beidou system began in 2007. It will consist of 35 satellites and is scheduled to be completed by 2020. Of the first nine satellites launched, three have experienced technical problems.
China has a number of experimental satellites in orbit. They are being used to gather information on the space environment and to test technology such as Earth terrain mapping. China is also actively conducting research in the area of small satellites, 150kg or less, for use in communication, and to test micro-satellite technology.
Prestige is the driving factor behind China’s space programme. A Chinese space programme demonstrates to the world that it is a leading technological power. China is taking a step by step approach to manned and robotic exploration of the cosmos.
The Moon is China’s starting point for deep space exploration. Through lunar exploration China will perfect propulsion and detection technologies that will be used on future exploration missions to Mars or Venus. There have already been two Chinese missions to the Moon, Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2. These orbiters were named after the country’s mythical Moon goddess. Three more lunar probes, are planned, they are Chang’e-3, Chang’e-4 and Chang’e-5. Chang’e-3 is slated to be launched in 2013 and will perform a soft landing on the lunar surface later that year. It will carry a Moon rover capable of detecting, collecting and analysing lunar samples. Chang’e-4 is also a surface mission and is expected to take place no earlier than 2014. China’s first lunar sample return mission, Chang’e-5, is scheduled to launch in 2017. Chang’e-5 will carry a landing probe, a lunar surface patrol device and other equipment. There has been no official mention of a Chang’e-6; however, it is speculated that it will be launched before 2018. It is also speculated that a modified lunar probe will be sent to Mars in 2013 or 2016.
While much of its activities have been focused on lunar exploration, China has teamed with Russia to stage a sample return mission to Mars’s moon Phobos. Yinghuo-1, a 110kg micro-satellite, is scheduled to launch with Russia’s Phobos-Grunt Spacecraft in late 2011. Once the two spacecraft reach their destination Phobos-Grunt will land on Phobos while Yinghuo-1 enters orbit around Mars. There it will explore the martian space environment and look for signs of water on the surface of Mars. Yinghuo-1 is entirely Chinese built while Phobos-Grunt carries equipment developed at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut into space. Five years later China carried out its first space walk. During this 15 minute excursion, Commander Zhai Zhigang, wearing a Chinese-made spacesuit, retrieved test samples of solid lubricant while tethered to his Shenzhou spacecraft. The next step in China’s manned space programme is Tiangong-1 which was launched in September 2011. Meaning ‘Heavenly Palace’, Tiangong-1 is a small space laboratory module with a single docking port. It was built to serve as a rendezvous and docking platform for future space missions. After its launch, an unmanned Shenzhou-8 rendezvoused and docked with the laboratory on 2 November - performing a critical milestone in orbit. Later, in 2012, a manned Shenzhou-9 will rendezvous and dock with Tiangong-1. Tiangong-1 is the first step toward a 60-ton Chinese space station that will be in orbit by 2015. The station will be comprised of a core module and two multipurpose laboratory/storage modules. Tiangong-1 will provide China the experience needed to build this space station. It will also give China experience in mid-duration spaceflight, rendezvous and docking. Modified versions of Tiangong are expected to serve as cargo resupply spacecraft. The experience gained through Tiangong-1 and China’s space station will pave the way for a planned manned Moon landing in 2025.
China on the world stage
While the development of its space infrastructure is largely a domestic effort, China is seeking co-operation and collaboration with other nations in scientific and technological space endeavours. It is actively promoting the inclusive development of outer space for the benefit of all, especially for countries and people yet to have space capabilities. China is currently co-operating with developing countries for commercial benefit, to strengthen diplomatic ties and to secure access to raw materials.
In 2003 China set up the Asia-Pacific Space Co-operation Organization (APSCO) which aims to promote multilateral co-operation in space science and technology. Its members work together in development and research, the application of space technology and the training of space experts. APSCO member nations include Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru and Thailand. Through APSCO, member nations are able to participate in space-related projects such as the design and construction of remote sensing satellites. APSCO is essentially an organisation for technology transfer to help China establish diplomatic leadership in Asia. Typically APSCO membership is limited to countries that find it difficult to access advanced space technology.
China desires to co-operate and collaborate with developed space nations. This is motivated by China’s desire to gain access to technologies and research that can supplement their independently developed technologies. China is interested in participating in the International Space Station (ISS) programme. However, it recognizes that technical hurdles still remain in pursuing this collaboration, namely the disagreement between Chinese space station and ISS docking standards.
China is also looking to play a leading role in international space projects. It has proposed the Solar Polar Orbit Radio Telescope (SPORT) project. SPORT is an international project with the purpose of observing solar wind from a polar orbit around the Sun. Scientists from the US, Japan, Russia, and Europe participated in the preliminary research and discussion of the SPORT proposal.
Of the developed space nations Russia has been China’s closest partner. Co-operation with Russia has been central to the development of the Chinese space programme. The Long March rocket booster has its roots in the Russian R-2 ballistic missile. Chinese taikonauts received training at Russia’s Star City and Russia and China take a common position on the non-weaponisation of space. Russia sees relations with China as a way to develop a counterbalance to the ‘US hegemony.’ However, it remains careful in its relation with China, as it sees China as a real threat to its economic and political interests.
Europe has embraced co-operation with China on various space ventures. The European Space Agency (ESA) provided China with details of the SMART-1 spacecraft’s position and transmission frequencies. In return China agreed to carry an ESA bio sample on Shenzou-8. China was invited to participate in ESA’s Double Star mission, Dragon Earth Observation application programme and the EU’s Galileo global positioning programme. The EU wishes to enhance co-operation with China in space technology because of China’s rapid development. It believes that, despite its technological edge over China, international co-operation is necessary to secure the future of the EU in space.
The US has proven the most resistant to collaboration with China. The main fear of the US Government is that, through collaboration, China will gain sensitive space technology. The US has also raised concerns over China’s development of space weapons capable of jamming space transmissions and deorbiting satellites. Under the Clinton administration the US sought co-operation with China in an attempt to curtail exports of missile technology to countries such as Iran and North Korea. During the 1990s China spent more than $1bn toward the purchase of US-built satellites. However, in 1998 when an Intel satellite launched on a Long March booster failed, it emerged that illegal missile technology had been transferred between US companies and the Chinese. This caused the US Government to reclassify space technology under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), prohibiting the export of space technology to China. This proved to be the end of co-operation between the US and China in space. This reclassification also put China outside of the commercial launch sector dominated by American, European and Russian companies due to the fact that most commercial telecommunication satellites carry some US parts. To compete, China was forced to offer launch services at lower prices. Despite these hardships, China’s domestic demand for telecommunication, navigation, Earth observation and science satellites, as well as its manned space programme gave the Long March launch vehicle sufficient business to earn it a record of reliability. Recently, EADS Astrium has developed a communication satellite devoid of US technology, allowing it to be launched on Long March rockets.
Relations between the US and China show signs of improving. High ranking Chinese government space officials have appealed to the US government to lift the ban on most forms of US-Chinese space co-operation. The US and China have agreed to take specific actions to deepen dialogue and exchanges in the field of space. Washington is also reviewing the current ITAR regime which US industry says has had the effect of making it difficult to sell satellites and satellite components just about anywhere in the world. However, it is yet to be seen whether the U.S. will put aside its distrust of China and partner with them in space.
Want to know more about China’s space programme? On 26 January 2012 at the Royal Aeronautical Society HQ in London, Karl Bergquist, International Relations Administrator, European Space Agency will be giving a lecture on China’s expanding space programme. Karl Bergquist is Europe’s leading expert on China’s space programme. He is responsible for relations with China in the European Space Agency (ESA), and has written and lectured extensively on the subject. For more details on this lecture, click here.
Aerospace International Contents – October 2011
News Roundup – p4
News focus – p5
Africa’s new idigenous aircraft
Letters – p 12
British air power and Shorts aircraft
Gulf carriers still flying high – p14
Middle East airlines
States of flux – p 18
Challenges for the defence market in the Middle East
New names, new hopes – p 22
New entrants to the GA market
Helicopters for all – p 24
Helitech 2011 show report
Arms and austerity – p 26
DSEi exhibition report
The dragon in space – p 30
China’s sapceflight programme
The last word – p34
Keith Hayward on China’s aerospace industry
This is a full article published in Aerospace International: November 2011. As a member, you recieve two new Royal Aeronautical Society publications each month – find out more about membership.