10 Signs China Is Serious About Space

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Image Gallery: Space Exploration
Image Gallery: Space Exploration

Meet China's first space laboratory module Tiangong-1. Here it prepares for liftoff on Sept. 29, 2011. China aims to have a manned Chinese space station by 2020. See more pictures of space exploration.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

10 Signs China Is Serious About Space

Already boasting scores of satellite launches, a handful of crewed orbital missions and two lunar probes, Red China now stands poised to assume a leading role in the Big Black.

Since kicking off in 1992, China's space program has chalked up modest but steady progress, roughly paralleling the trajectory of the American and the Soviet programs in the 1960s but at a steeper approach. Where its precursors were forced to blast off on the back of primitive computers and solid-state technology, China stands elevated on the shoulders of giants, benefiting from four decades of technical innovation and lessons learned by other space programs.

On Dec. 29, 2011, the communist state announced its next five-year road map for advancing Chinese space exploration, a plan that comprises bigger and better rockets, solo space station status and lunar launches preparing the way for sending humans to the moon. With the American space program's prospects uncertain, and Russia's 2010 and 2011 spate of launch problems, it appears the stage is set for China to take its place among, if not surpass, the global space powers.

In this article, we'll add up the 10 ways China has signaled the earnestness of its extraterrestrial aspirations.

You can't have a space program if you don't have any money. That's not the case for China though.

Guang Niu/Getty Images

10: Bankrolling Breakthroughs

China's booming economy fuels its space aspirations, and the nation is banking on the relationship being reciprocal. As the program progresses, it should yield marketable technologies, much as the American space program spawned memory foam, digital image enhancement, better adult diapers and ribbed swimsuits.

In 2005, China budgeted about $1.2 billion toward its space program, compared to NASA's $16.2 billion (including non-space applications, such as engineering), the European Space Agency's 2.98 billion euros (about $3.5 billion), Russia and India's $800-$900 million apiece and Japan's $1.8 billion.

Viewed from the standpoint of gross domestic product (the market value of all goods and services produced within a country in a given period), that doesn't amount to much -- a fraction of a portion of a part: 0.02 percent of China's $7.3 trillion GDP in 2004, as compared to 0.14 percent of America's $11.8 trillion GDP that same year [source: Masters].

Still, that apportionment is nothing to sneeze at. China -- with its bargain-basement labor costs and sky-high proportion of state-run enterprises -- can stretch each yuan further than the U.S. can squeeze its dollars and, as we'll see in this next section, it has more than scientific and economic motives for doing so [source: BLS].

That's the USS Russell, the backup ship slated to shoot down a broken satellite on Feb. 20, 2008.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

9: Maintaining Military Might

World powers first recognized space as a military theater during the Cold War, the advent of spy satellites and nuclear missiles programmed to skim space en route to targets. In 1983, the Reagan administration's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, aka the "Star Wars" program, raised the stakes even higher.

In a Dec. 29, 2011, white paper outlining its five-year plan, China stated that it "always adheres to the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space." Yet, the Eastern power does not draw clear divisions between its military, civilian and scientific sectors. China's space program has already fashioned spy satellites with capabilities rivaling America's eyes in the sky and, once established, its homegrown GPS network will endow its armed forces with advanced command and control capabilities [source: Rabinovitch].

Likewise, both the United States and China have developed and tested technologies for shooting down satellites. According to analysts, China has identified America's military reliance on orbiting craft as a vulnerability [sources: Lague; Wolf].

Securing China's future, in space or on the ground, will take more than a robust military; it will require enriching the nation's educational system and building bridges with other Asian and Pacific powers. Let's take a look at China's outreach efforts.

If you want a great space program, you have to get the kids interested. Here, Chinese students talk to astronauts during an ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) contact in 2007.

China Photos/Getty Images

8: Building Cooperation

For a nation to reach skyward, it must be tended by educated leaders and rooted in a skilled workforce. With this in mind, China is building bridges between its academic, research and space centers. Established affiliations include the following:

  • the Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center in Mianyang City
  • the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • the School of Aeronautics at Harbin Institute of Technology
  • the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou

The nation has also made headway in building regional cooperation among government officials and management and engineering experts in Asia and the Pacific [source: Zhigang]. In addition, the China National Space Administration reports setting up cooperative agreements with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, along with Spain's nascent space program. China has also launched a satellite in conjunction with AgĂȘncia Espacial Brasileira, Brazil's national space agency, and has inked a memorandum of understanding regarding space with Canada.

This underpinning of cooperation extends to childhood education as well. For example, several Chinese students have taken part in Space School China, a program based on Space School UK [source: British Council]. These educational opportunities give young adults ages 13-15 the chance to participate in rocket building, planetary science, robotics and other space-related activities.

Next we'll examine how China is expanding another foundational facet of its space program -- one that literally helps get its rockets off the ground.

A Long March 2F rocket carries the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Oct. 26, 2011. Shenzhou-8 successfully docked with the unmanned space module Tiangong-1 in November 2011.

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

7: Expanding and Improving Launch Facilities

China has recently upgraded its three workhorse launch facilities: the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, part of Dongfeng Aerospace City located in the Gobi desert; the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province; and Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi Province. As of January 2012, these sites have sent up three crewed spacecraft, two lunar probes and numerous satellites. Along the way, China National Space Administration has beefed up each site's capacity for conducting tests and undertaking higher-intensity rocket launches.

The space agency's engineers are building a new space launch site in Hainan, too, which should be ready in 2016 or 2017. Construction of the new facility, which is slated to handle next-generation launch vehicles as they come online, required displacing 6,000 residents, evoking memories of the mass relocations that attended the construction of Three Gorges Dam. That the nation didn't shrink from doing so is another indication that China takes its space program seriously [source: Xinhua].

In the next few sections, we'll take a closer look at what China has launched from these sites and what it plans to send up in the future.

6: Bouncing off the Satellites

China's uncrewed orbiting craft already speckle the sky, and 2012 through 2017 should see sizable expansion and enhancement of the country's satellite networks. This expansion will extend into several spheres, from high-resolution Earth-observation satellites, to orbital craft housing scientific experiments and technical instruments, to systems for monitoring space debris.

Perhaps most significantly, the country plans by 2020 to have established the Beidou global-positioning and navigation system, a web of 35 satellites akin to America's Global Positioning System. Having a homegrown GPS will imbue China with greater navigational independence and will enable its military to take its command and control to the next level.

Launching satellites successfully is only the first stage in China's plan to take on space. Continue on to hear how the nation's crewed spacecraft are coming along.

Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut in space, salutes before giving a speech during a meeting marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.

Guang Niu/Getty Images

5: Establishing a Crewed Program

It's one thing to set in motion a space program aimed at providing Earth observations, communications, scientific data or even space exploration; all of that can be accomplished with unmanned craft such as orbital satellites or deep-space probes. China, however, has also focused on developing Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts (from taikong, the Chinese word for space, and the Greek suffix -naut, for sailor) [source: Cong].

Sending a human into the hostile environs beyond Earth's protective envelope is a tall order, requiring a unique series of advanced technologies, including extended life support, but China has risen to the challenge. In 2003, its space program successfully launched its first taikonaut, Yang Liwei; five years later, a Chinese astronaut conducted the country's first spacewalk.

The nation's long-term goal, as we'll discuss later, is to put taikonauts on the moon. How do you get to the moon? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice. Oh, and rockets -- lots of them. Read on to see how much prep China has put in so far.

Business as usual in Beijing as a woman walks past a television announcing that China had successfully put a man in space.

Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

4: Putting 79 Spacecraft in Orbit -- and Counting

In 2012, China's space technology stands at roughly the same level as that of the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s: The country has established an effective satellite launch capability and has placed a handful of humans into space. The Chinese have even conducted spacewalks.

Assuming its booming bubble-economy doesn't burst anytime soon, the Eastern power is just getting started. China has an established record of setting and meeting modest, achievable goals in its space program and, unlike its predecessors, can build upon advances in rocketry and available technology.

According to China's space agency, between 2006 and 2011, the nation achieved 67 successful launches and placed 79 spacecraft into orbit, including satellites for Earth observation, communication, navigation and scientific testing. Its lunar probes, Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 (named for a Chinese moon goddess), have also orbited and mapped the moon [source: China IOSC].

If China continues along this path, it will soon rise to status as a space power on a par with the Unites States or Russia, and if those nations do not act to maintain parity, it may well surpass them.

After all, as we'll see in the next section, the slow and steady approach has its benefits.

3: Advancing Rockets in Stages

Over 2012-2017, China plans to steadily advance the technology and lifting capacity of its workhorse Long March rockets, which the country has employed to launch satellites into orbit. According to the Dec. 29, 2011, white paper, the Long March-5 will lift 25 metric tons (55,116 pounds) into low-Earth orbit -- that's more lift capacity than American space shuttles had before they were mothballed, but only a fraction of the lift capacity of the Saturn V rocket that sent American astronauts to the moon, or of the planned American Space Launch System, which at build-out will be able to haul 130 metric tons (286,000 pounds) into space.

Moving forward, China plans to tighten down its reliability record and build up a fleet of more flexible spacecraft. The December report described the Long March-6 as a "new type of high-speed response launch vehicle" with the ability to boost a 1-metric-ton (2,204-pound) payload into sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 435 miles (700 kilometers). The Long March-7 is slated to pack an even bigger punch, placing 5.5 metric tons (12,125 pounds) of payload into the same orbit.

That's important, because they're going to need all the lifting capacity they can get if they want to pull off their latest project: an orbital space station.

China's first space laboratory module Tiangong-1 lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on Sept, 29, 2011, with a little help from a Long March rocket.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

2: Establishing a Space Laboratory

On Sept. 29, 2011, China launched its Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace 1") space laboratory -- the first piece of, and test bed for, its planned orbital space station. After 2020, when the then-decommissioned International Space Station embarks on its fiery atmospheric re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, Tiangong-1 will take over as the only space station still in operation.

Pulling together a successful space station requires perfecting such procedures as docking and refueling, and China has taken its first steps toward meeting this need. The nation's space agency already completed its first successful space docking on Nov. 3, 2011, when the uncrewed Shenzhou-8 capsule and Tiangong-1 module linked up live on national television [source: Jacobs]. China plans to carry on practicing space docking at Tiangong-1.

Moving on to crewed docking maneuvers and establishing an orbiting Chinese space station form the basis of the nation's next great leap forward. Read on to see how China plans to do the regolith rhumba on the moon.

Watch out, moon. Here comes China.

Grant Faint/The Image Bank/Getty Images

1: Looking Moonward

Around 40 years have passed since Eugene Cernan left the last human boot print on the surface of the moon. American astronauts have not returned since, and the Soviet Union never bothered to go in the first place. With the exception of the abortive Constellation program backed by President George W. Bush, politicos have put forward little serious discussion of a return to our silvery companion.

Enter China. The Middle Kingdom is determined to go to the big ball of green cheese, and it's willing to spend the cheddar to do it. With this in mind, the China National Space Administration's short-term plan focuses on building an uncrewed system capable of reaching the moon, collecting samples and returning them to Earth.

From 2007-2008, China's first lunar orbiter, Chang'e-1, successfully mapped the lunar surface; Chang'e-2, launched Oct. 1, 2010, tested landing technology for the planned 2013 Chang'e-3 sample-collection mission, and supplied high-resolution imagery of its successor's landing site [sources: CNN; CJSS]. Chang'e-3, sporting China's first robotic lander and rover, is slated for a 2013 launch.

China intends for such missions to prepare the way for later crewed moonshots. If successful, and unchallenged by other space powers, they will establish China as the only nation currently sending human beings to our nearest neighbor. Whether the rest of the world will allow such "lunacy" to go unanswered, out of lack of interest or in the name of other priorities, only time will tell.

Lots More Information

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