China: the new space superpower
For years, its space programme was shrouded in secrecy. Now, with plans for lunar and Mars missions, and crowds at its launch sites, China is ready for liftoff
By Stuart Clark
Aug 28 2016
At 8pm Beijing time on 25 June this year the tropical darkness over China’s Hainan province was temporarily banished by a blinding orange light. Accompanied by the thunderous roar of engines, a 53m-tall rocket pushed itself into the sky.
An increasing number of Chinese rockets have launched in the past few years but this one was significant for three reasons. It was the first launch of the new Long March 7rocket, designed to help the Chinese place a multi-module space station in orbit. It was the first liftoff from China’s newly constructed Wenchang launch complex, a purpose-built facility set to become the focus for Chinese space ambitions. And it was the first Chinese launch where tourists were encouraged to go along and watch.
For a space programme that has long been shrouded in secrecy, it’s a major step. The Wenchang complex has been designed with large viewing areas, and in the sultry heat of that June night, tens of thousands of spectators stood cheering as the rocket began its 394km journey above the Earth and into orbit.
“China is developing very rapidly into one of the major space players,” says Fabio Favata, head of the programme coordination office at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) directorate of science.
China launched a pioneering “hack proof” quantum communication satellite, called Quantum Experiments at Space Scale, on 16 August from its older Jiuquan launch centre in the Gobi Desert. This is the first large-scale satellite designed to investigate the weird quantum phenomenon called “entanglement” that so unnerved Albert Einstein he once called it “spooky”. In addition, China is preparing to launch another new rocket design, a new space station, an X-ray telescope and a crewed mission before the year is out.
China is estimated to spend around $6bn a year on its space programme. Although that is almost $1bn more than Russia, it is still a fraction of the American space budget, which is around $40bn a year. Despite its large budget, the US made only 19 successful space launches in 2013, compared with China’s 14 and Russia’s 31. With numbers like this, it is clear that China has arrived in space, and is set to become stronger.
“You will see the Chinese quite visibly begin to match the capacity of the other spacefaring powers by 2020,” predicts Brian Harvey, space analyst and author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward . Key to this will be the large manned space station, Tiangong, which they plan to have in orbit by then. Although not as physically large as the International Space Station America, Russia, Europe, Japan and other countries have been building and using since 1998, China’s space station will have a broadly similar capacity to perform science.
“Science is becoming more and more important in the Chinese space programme,” says Wang Chi of the National Space Science Centre, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “We are not [just] satisfied with the achievements we have made in the fields of the space technology and space application. With the development of the Chinese space programme, we are trying to make contributions to human knowledge about the universe.”
Perhaps most impressive is the broad front on which the Chinese space programme is advancing. They are making strides in everything from human space flight to space science and planetary exploration.
So do the Chinese want to take over space? Brian Harvey, space analyst and author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward, believes the Chinese simply want to be seen as equals. “To use a Chinese phrase, I think they are wanting to bring their own mat to the table,” he says. “They are looking for equality, they want respect from the world’s space community.”
To that end, China’s biggest inroad has been made with the ESA through the space science programme. Soon after the turn of the century. ESA launched the Cluster mission to study so-called “space weather” and the electrical malfunctions this could cause on satellites. The Chinese were keen to learn more about space weather too and came to the European agency with a proposal: they would build extra satellites to enhance the Cluster mission if ESA would collaborate with them.
“They understood that space weather was a key challenge as we rely more and more on technology in orbit,” says Christopher Carr, a physicist at Imperial College, London, who worked on the Cluster mission. ESA took care of the negotiations, allowing scientists, including Carr, to build the instruments unhindered. Although there were some differences in working methods that had to be ironed out, Carr says: “Overall it was an enjoyable collaboration.”
The Double Star mission was launched in 2003 and became China’s first scientific satellite. Cluster and Double Star have so far produced 2,300 peer-reviewed science papers. “That is an enormously successful, astonishing scientific output,” says Carr.
China: the new space superpower