In the vast expanse of the cosmos, China has steadily been ascending as a global space superpower, making remarkable strides in space exploration, mining, and military capabilities. From lunar missions and Mars rovers to satellite constellations and anti-satellite weapons, China’s presence in space has become increasingly influential and multifaceted.
The China National Space Agency (CNSA) has orchestrated remarkable missions, ranging from manned spaceflight to lunar and Martian exploration. Notably, the CNSA’s achievements include sending astronauts to space, deploying space stations as part of the Tiangong program, launching heavy lift vehicles like the Long March 5, and landing robotic missions on the moon’s far side and Mars. In 2021, China became the second nation worldwide to successfully land a rover on Mars and the first to accomplish a mission comprising an orbiter, lander, and rover.
This article explores China’s journey from the early days of space exploration to its current status as a major player in both peaceful and military space endeavors.
A Historical Odyssey
China’s space program began modestly in the 1950s but took a significant leap forward in 1970 with the launch of its first satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1. Since then, China has achieved numerous milestones in space exploration.
Since early 2019, Chang’e-4, the Chinese lunar lander mission that delivered a successful lunar rover called Yutu-2, has been conducting an exploration mission on the far side of the Moon.
The Chang’e 5 mission was completed in December 2020. This Chinese lunar sample return mission involved a series of complex steps, including the landing of a lander on the Moon’s surface, the collection of lunar samples, the transfer of these samples to an ascender, and their eventual return to Earth. The mission concluded when the Earth return vehicle safely landed on Earth, carrying precious lunar samples for scientific analysis. The successful completion of this mission marked a significant milestone in China’s lunar exploration program and provided valuable lunar samples for scientific research.
Furthermore, China’s Tianwen-1 mission made headlines by successfully deploying the Zhurong rover on Mars, marking a historic achievement in interplanetary exploration.
A Quantum Leap in Space Presence
China’s ascent as a space power is evident not only in its achievements but also in its increasing frequency of satellite launches. The nation launched its first satellite into space in 1970, marking its entry into the space race. In 2020, China took the lead by launching more satellites than any other country, a trend that continued into 2021. With 36 space vehicle launches in 2020 alone, China set a remarkable pace in space exploration.
The CNSA’s focus on advanced space capabilities is evident in various domains, including satellite communication (SATCOM), intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), satellite navigation (SATNAV), and meteorology. Furthermore, China’s space program boasts extensive ground infrastructure to support spacecraft and space launch vehicle manufacture, launches, command and control (C2), and data transmission. The country has signed export agreements with numerous nations, extending its satellite capabilities to countries along the Belt and Road Initiative.
Towards a Cosmic Odyssey
China is setting its sights on a transformative “major breakthrough” in its space program by the year 2040. This ambitious vision encompasses the development of nuclear-powered space shuttles, enabling asteroid mining and facilitating “large-scale space exploration.” China aspires to position itself as a preeminent leader in aerospace by 2045. Under the guidance of President Xi Jinping, the nation is resolute in its quest to become a global force in space exploration. This journey includes significant milestones such as dispatching the inaugural probe to the moon’s mysterious far side in 2018 and orchestrating crewed lunar missions by 2036. To support these endeavors, the Lunar Palace 365 experiment holds the potential to extend human stays on the lunar surface for more extended durations, marking a pivotal stride in China’s cosmic odyssey.
China has firmly grasped advanced space technologies and successfully established itself as a leading player in the field. The China Academy of Space Technology, boasting nearly 5,000 patents, spearheads groundbreaking developments in satellite and spaceship recycling, thermal control, attitude and orbit control, as well as electric propulsion, positioning China at the forefront of space innovation.
However, China’s ambitions reach beyond technological prowess. It aspires to dethrone the United States as the dominant force in space, although it officially asserts peaceful intentions. Simultaneously, China’s strategic doctrine designates space as a military domain, prompting substantial investments in space infrastructure. This dual-purpose approach aims to secure both economic advantages and military supremacy.
Mining the Cosmos
China’s ambitions have extended beyond Earth’s immediate vicinity. The country has set its sights on asteroid mining, recognizing the potential for valuable resources such as rare metals and water. The Chang’e 6 mission, slated for the 2030s, aims to collect samples from a near-Earth asteroid. This venture not only presents opportunities for economic gain but also positions China as a pioneer in resource utilization beyond our planet.
China has boldly asserted itself as a global leader in lunar exploration, marking a historic milestone in human space exploration. On January 2, 2019, China achieved an unprecedented feat by landing the Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the uncharted far side of the moon, a remarkable moment that reshaped the trajectory of lunar exploration.
The Chang’e-4 mission, spearheaded by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), witnessed the touchdown of the Chang’e-4 lander on the far side of the moon. Subsequently, the Yutu 2 (“Jade Rabbit 2”) rover was deployed into the Von Kármán crater, embarking on a groundbreaking lunar exploration journey. The relay satellite, aptly named Queqiao, meaning “Magpie Bridge” in homage to a Chinese legend, played a pivotal role. Launched on May 21, 2018, Queqiao became the first communication satellite to operate in the halo orbit around the second Lagrangian (L2) point of the Earth-Moon system, situated nearly 500,000 kilometers from Earth. This strategically positioned satellite effectively bridged the communication gap between the lunar far side and ground control.
Queqiao’s ingenious design allowed it to maintain a stable orbit with relatively low fuel consumption, thanks to the delicate balance between the gravitational forces of Earth and the moon. This distinctive orbit, reminiscent of a halo when observed from Earth, marked a technological feat that had eluded earlier space experts. This achievement, while primarily a lunar communications milestone, also carries potential military implications, as its distant location renders it less susceptible to targeting or jamming.
China’s lunar endeavors continued with the Chang’e-5 mission, which successfully returned moon samples to Earth in 2020. These lunar samples, among the youngest ever retrieved at just 1.2 billion years old, hold invaluable insights into the moon’s geological evolution and its connection to Earth’s history and the broader solar system.
The Chang’e-5 mission now embarks on an extended mission, focusing on testing technologies and re-entry procedures. This includes guidance, navigation, and control systems, heat shields, and trajectory design. Notably, it will investigate the “skip re-entry” technique, a precision maneuver that leverages atmospheric dips to regulate the vehicle’s speed and avoid extreme temperatures generated by atmospheric friction. These crucial technologies lay the groundwork for future missions, envisioning large lunar landers capable of collecting substantial lunar samples for return to Earth.
The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), known as the Chang’e program, encompasses an array of robotic moon missions utilizing Long March rockets. These missions not only expand our lunar knowledge but also serve as stepping stones to master key technologies. These include autonomous navigation and high-speed communication systems for deep space, as well as advanced power sources like fuel cells and atomic generators to energize spacecraft. These capabilities, once honed, bestow China with strategic advantages in space exploration.
China’s ambitions extend beyond lunar exploration, with an eye on future economic development and strategic supremacy. Prominent figures like Ouyang Ziyuan advocate for the utilization of lunar resources, including metals like titanium and the coveted helium-3, an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion power plants, potentially revolutionizing energy production on Earth. China’s ascendancy in lunar exploration underscores its commitment to pioneering the cosmos and reshaping our understanding of the universe.
Ground Support Infrastructure
To support its growing space capabilities, China has “built an expansive ground support infrastructure to support its growing on-orbit fleet and related functions including spacecraft and space launch vehicle (SLV) manufacture, launch, C2 [command and control], and data downlink.”
China operates three major space launch centers:
- Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC): Situated in the Gobi Desert in northwestern China, JSLC is the oldest and largest of China’s space launch facilities. It serves as a versatile center for launching various spacecraft, including satellites, rockets, and crewed missions.
- Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center (TSLC): Located in northern China, TSLC specializes in launching satellites into polar orbits. This orbital trajectory is ideal for Earth-monitoring satellites, such as weather and Earth observation satellites, as it allows them to cover the entire Earth’s surface.
- Xichang Satellite Launch Center (XSLC): Positioned in southwestern China, XSLC is primarily used for launching satellites into geosynchronous orbits. This orbit type is crucial for satellites that require a fixed position above a specific point on Earth’s surface, including communication and navigation satellites.
Additionally, China is in the process of developing a fourth launch center in Wenchang, southern China. This new facility will be dedicated to launching heavy-lift rockets and crewed spacecraft, further expanding China’s capabilities in space exploration and satellite deployment.
China’s Long March Launcher Series: Pioneering Space Access
In December 2020, China marked a significant milestone in its space endeavors with the inaugural launch of the Long March 8, a versatile launch vehicle showcasing the nation’s commitment to innovation in space technology. The Long March-8 is planned to be China’s
first rocket with a reusable first stage and is planned to support China’s growing commercial space sector
This medium-lift rocket joins a prestigious lineup of Long March rockets, including the Long March 5, Long March 6, and Long March 7, each contributing to China’s growing capabilities in space exploration. Together, they comprehensively address an array of anticipated launch requirements, spanning from crewed missions in low Earth orbit to satellite deployments into sun-synchronous and geostationary transfer orbits, and even missions venturing beyond Earth’s gravitational confines.
The Long March 8 is engineered to carry a substantial payload of approximately 9,900 pounds (4.5 metric tons) to a polar sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 435 miles (700 kilometers). This thrust capacity bridges the gap between the smaller Long March 6 and the more formidable Long March 7, significantly enhancing China’s launch flexibility in the 3 to 4.5 metric tons to sun-synchronous orbit category. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), the nation’s principal state-owned space program contractor, underscores the strategic importance of this latest addition to China’s launch vehicle family.
Among these remarkable rockets, the Long March 5 shines as China’s heavyweight, proudly holding the title of the most potent launcher in the country’s space history. Notably, these new Long March rockets incorporate environmentally friendly propellants, opting for kerosene and hydrogen-fueled engines in lieu of the older hydrazine-burning engines employed by the Long March 2, 3, and 4 rockets.
A pivotal contender in China’s future space ventures, the Long March 7 boasts a versatile profile capable of launching heavy payloads of up to 13,500 kilograms into Low Earth Orbit and transporting medium-sized communications satellites weighing up to 595 metric tons into Geostationary Transfer Orbit.
A standout mission of the Long March 7 was the deployment of the Roaming Dragon satellite, designed as a space debris collector. Beijing has affirmed its commitment to space debris control and reduction, aligning with responsible practices as a major nation. The satellite’s mission involves removing defunct spacecraft and sizable space debris from congested orbits, ensuring the security of outer space for all. However, the Roaming Dragon’s highly adaptable and maneuverable robotic arm raises dual-use concerns. While its primary mission is debris removal, its capabilities also extend to potentially disruptive activities, such as dismantling or deorbiting satellites from other countries.
The classification of space robotic arms as weapons hinges on the user’s intent, highlighting the dual nature of space technologies. As China advances in space access and exploration, it confronts a dual responsibility—nurturing its leadership in space endeavors while adhering to international norms of responsible space conduct.
The Long March 7, designated CZ-7, is set to play a pivotal role in China’s ambitious space endeavors. It is positioned to become the primary launch vehicle for transporting cargo to resupply China’s forthcoming modular space station. Furthermore, CZ-7 is poised to take over crewed space missions once the next-generation crewed spacecraft is prepared for operational flights. A notable feature shared by these new launchers is the utilization of the YF-100 engine, transitioning from toxic propellants to the more environmentally friendly combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen, achieving enhanced performance.
However, the details surrounding the payloads of the inaugural Long March 7 flight remain shrouded in secrecy. Hidden beneath the rocket’s fairing were several significant elements, including a scaled-down version of China’s future crewed spacecraft, a ballast mast, and at least three small satellites, notably The Star of Aoxiang, a CubeSat-class satellite.
Notably, the re-entry capsule featured in this mission bears a striking resemblance to China’s hypersonic glide vehicle DF-ZF. Observers noted that the capsule’s distinctive coloring hinted at the deployment of a new, heat-resistant coating, a critical component for a hypersonic vehicle. This test flight marked important advancements in reusable spacecraft technology, in-flight systems for gathering thermal and aerodynamic data, and communication capabilities during re-entry.
China’s DF-ZF, previously known as the WU-14, is a hypersonic missile delivery vehicle that has undergone seven flight tests, showcasing its advanced capabilities. Traveling at speeds approximately ten times that of sound, or 12,231.01 kilometers per hour, this strategic weapon offers a potent combination of speed and maneuverability. During its latest test, it demonstrated the ability to perform evasive actions, further enhancing its strategic utility.
China’s Innovative Approach to Space Launches: Rockets from Freighters and Planes
China is poised to revolutionize its space launch capabilities with two ambitious projects set to take flight in the near future. Beginning next year, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) is planning to employ massive 10,000-ton freighters as ocean-based launchpads for its Long March 11 rockets. These rockets have the capacity to transport payloads of up to 1,100 pounds into low-earth orbit. The strategic move involves positioning the freighters near the equator, a location that significantly reduces the fuel requirements for launches and enables the handling of more substantial payloads.
An alternative and equally intriguing approach is launching rockets from the air. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology has announced the development of a solid-fueled space launch rocket designed to be dropped from the Y-20 aircraft. This rocket is anticipated to weigh approximately 60 tons, closely aligning with the Y-20’s payload capacity of 66 tons, and boasts a low Earth orbit payload capability of 220 pounds.
Dropping a rocket from an aircraft, as opposed to traditional ground-based launches, introduces several advantages. Notably, the rocket’s first stage can be downsized, resulting in greater efficiency and the ability to accommodate larger payloads. This approach not only enhances flexibility but also promises quicker launch times—a significant boon, particularly in military applications where speed and adaptability are paramount.
These innovative initiatives reflect China’s commitment to advancing its space capabilities, both for civilian and military purposes, and may signal a transformation in the way nations conduct space launches.
China’s vision for the future of space exploration is equally bold. By 2025, the nation plans to venture into the development of reusable suborbital carrier rockets, a significant step toward reducing launch costs and increasing the efficiency of space missions. These efforts align with its broader objectives, which include launching manned missions to the Moon and executing a Mars probe mission that would retrieve samples, both anticipated around 2030.
Notably, China is preparing to unleash the Long March 9 rocket by 2030, classified as a “heavy-lift” rocket capable of hoisting payloads exceeding 100 tonnes (220,462 pounds). This powerhouse is primed for conducting crewed lunar missions and possibly unmanned missions to Mars, signifying China’s dedication to pioneering deep space exploration.
Furthermore, China aspires to revolutionize space travel by 2035, envisioning the development of completely reusable carrier rockets and the emergence of “future-generation intelligent carrier rockets.” Tang Yagang, Director of Carrier Rocket Development at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, anticipates a future where even common people will have access to reusable carrier vehicles for space travel, marking a paradigm shift in human access to the cosmos.
Recent announcements have underscored China’s intent to send crewed missions to Mars by 2033, forming a part of their long-term vision to establish a permanent Martian base, potentially surpassing NASA’s aspirations for human Mars exploration.
China has set its sights on an ambitious objective: to emerge as the global leader in space technology by 2045. As we fast-forward to 2045, China envisions possessing advanced space transportation capabilities that will empower it to embark on large-scale exploration missions to planets, asteroids, and comets within our solar system. The strategic development of nuclear-powered space shuttles lies at the heart of this endeavor, with their potential to facilitate extensive exploration and resource utilization in space, including asteroid mining and the establishment of space-based solar power plants.
This transformative era in space exploration is poised for rapid advancement, signifying China’s profound commitment to pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and scientific achievement. Lu Yu, a distinguished senior rocket engineer at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., aptly encapsulated this vision, heralding a future where humanity’s reach into the cosmos knows no bounds.
In terms of technology, the China Academy of Space Technology, holding thousands of patents, leads in satellite and spaceship recycling, thermal control, attitude and orbit control, and electric propulsion.
China’s Grand Ambition: The Kilometer-Spanning Spacecraft
In September 2021, China unveiled an audacious plan to propel its space program into the next decade and beyond by developing an “ultra-large spacecraft spanning kilometers.” This remarkable proposal, part of the country’s latest five-year plan, holds the potential to revolutionize space exploration, ushering in an era of extended missions and resource utilization in low Earth orbit (LEO).
At the forefront of these initiatives is the aspiration to construct a colossal spacecraft with a practical, structural design that enables its launch and assembly in orbit. According to the project’s outlined concept, the spacecraft’s components will be manufactured on Earth, then individually launched into orbit for assembly. The spacecraft’s intended purpose encompasses several critical domains, positioning it as a “major strategic aerospace equipment” capable of harnessing space resources, delving into the mysteries of the universe, and sustaining long-term presence in space.
While this proposal brims with ambition and potential, it faces considerable skepticism. The magnitude of such an endeavor is staggering, primarily due to the substantial number of launches required to deploy all necessary elements to space. A salient reference point is the International Space Station (ISS), the most extensive artificial structure ever assembled in orbit. Constructing the ISS demanded numerous launches over several years and came at considerable cost, shared among multiple participating nations.
While China professes peaceful intentions, it recognizes space as a military domain, investing heavily in space infrastructure with both economic and military applications. China is actively pursuing the militarization and weaponization of space, positioning itself as a formidable military space power within the global context. Its efforts encompass the development of a comprehensive spectrum of space capabilities, aligning with the United States’ military capabilities in space. China’s ongoing investments in asymmetric technologies further escalate the risks posed to the U.S.
The development of anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, such as the successful 2007 destruction of a defunct satellite, highlights China’s military ambitions in space. These activities raise concerns regarding space weaponization and security.
Satellite Refueling: China has demonstrated its capability to refuel satellites in the vast expanse of space, a technological feat that holds profound implications for the future of satellite operations. The Tianyuan-1 system, launched aboard the Long March 7 rocket, has achieved successful satellite refueling missions. This innovation promises to significantly extend the operational lifespan of satellites, reduce their associated costs, and contribute to mitigating the growing challenge of space debris, an ever-present concern in Earth’s orbit.
Space Debris Cleanup and Asteroid Mining: In April 2021, a Chinese space mining venture embarked on an ambitious mission by deploying a robotic prototype named NEO-01 into low Earth orbit. This robot, developed by Shenzhen-based Origin Space, wields an innovative design, equipped with two versatile arms boasting seven articulated joints each. While its primary mission involves collecting and removing space debris left behind by previous missions, NEO-01 also possesses the capability to peer into the depths of space, studying small celestial bodies.
Moreover, NEO-01’s mission paves the way for future technologies aimed at mining asteroids, a prospect laden with potential resources. As China intensifies its efforts to land probes on near-Earth asteroids for sample collection, it concurrently accelerates the development of a defensive system against these celestial bodies. This dual-purpose approach highlights China’s commitment to expanding its footprint in space, from addressing immediate challenges like space debris to preparing for grander endeavors such as asteroid mining and planetary exploration.
While these innovations exemplify China’s achievements in space technology, the development of precise and reliable sensors for the robot’s zero-gravity operations remains a significant challenge. Nevertheless, China’s determination and investment in cutting-edge space capabilities underscore its ambition to shape the future of space exploration and utilization, benefitting both its domestic objectives and the broader international community.
China’s Versatile Space Station: Civilian, but with Military Potential
This space station boasts a substantial weight of 66 tonnes, consisting of a core module and two laboratory capsules. The propulsion system, consisting of 36 engines, plays a pivotal role in maneuvering the lab capsules within space. Impressively, each engine is designed for a minimum lifespan of 15 years, ensuring long-term functionality.
Comprising three modules, the Chinese space station, known as Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace,” is set to play a multifaceted role in space exploration. The Tianhe module, the initial component, serves as the central hub for managing and controlling the space station. It features a node that can accommodate up to three spacecraft for brief stays or two for extended visits, highlighting its versatility and capacity for scientific research and experimentation.
Operating in low Earth orbit, at altitudes ranging from 340 km to 450 km, the station has a designed operational life of ten years, which experts believe could extend beyond 15 years with proper maintenance and repairs. Its primary objectives encompass assembling, operating, and maintaining large spacecraft in orbit, ultimately transforming Tiangong into a state-level space laboratory that can accommodate astronauts and host expansive scientific, technological, and application experiments.
Moreover, the Tianhe module offers a living and working space of approximately 50 cubic meters, a figure set to expand to around 110 cubic meters with the addition of the two experiment modules. The station’s versatile capabilities enable a wide range of research, from materials science and quantum mechanics to medical experiments in microgravity. Furthermore, the space station serves as a testing ground for renewable life support systems, with the potential to explore lunar agriculture and resource self-sufficiency.
China envisions its space station contributing to international cooperation for the peaceful development and utilization of space resources while enhancing the nation’s technological prowess and experience for future deep-space exploration, potentially including lunar missions.
However, amid these peaceful intentions, concerns persist about potential military applications. Given China’s dual-use approach to its space programs, experts speculate that the space station could have military utility. While the scientific payloads and experiments could be replaced with military counterparts, such as intelligence gathering or counterpace weapons, Chinese officials maintain that the facility is purely civilian and not operated by the military.
In this dual-use landscape, a “deep space station” under construction in the Patagonia region has raised questions. Some experts suggest that modules designed for experiments could be swapped for modules housing laser weapons or warheads. Although Chinese authorities claim the station is civilian, the presence of military elements remains a topic of debate.
China’s evolving space station represents a fascinating intersection of scientific exploration, technological innovation, and national security considerations. The extent to which it remains a bastion of peaceful cooperation or adopts a more assertive military role will likely shape the future of space endeavors and international space policies.
Military Space Capabilities
China’s space capabilities have expanded into the military domain as well. In this pursuit, China is believed to have a long-term strategy aimed at consolidating its position as a military space power. Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), Xu Qilang, has stressed the imperative nature of space militarization for the PLAAF, emphasizing the necessity to establish capabilities for both offensive and defensive operations in outer space.
The country has developed an array of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, raising concerns among the international community. In 2007, China conducted its first successful ASAT test by destroying one of its own defunct satellites, generating thousands of pieces of space debris. This event underscored China’s growing prowess in military space technologies, igniting debates about space weaponization and security.
China’s advancements in military space extend to its satellite constellations, including the BeiDou Navigation System, providing global positioning and navigation capabilities, and reconnaissance and communication satellites, enhancing its surveillance and information warfare capabilities.
China has been steadily augmenting its array of capabilities aimed at limiting or disrupting the functionality of space-based assets employed by potential adversaries, especially during times of crisis or conflict. These endeavors encompass the development of cutting-edge directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers, posing a significant challenge to the security of U.S. national security satellites across various orbital regimes.
As highlighted in the 2015 Report to Congress, the operationalization of China’s counter-space capabilities allows the nation to exert influence over U.S. satellites that are vital to national security. This capability spans every orbital regime, making it a comprehensive and formidable challenge.
This trend of conducting anti-satellite tests continued over the years, with multiple tests taking place since 2005. Some tests bore resemblance to the January 2007 incident when China deliberately destroyed a defunct weather satellite, creating an enduring hazard of space debris that continues to orbit Earth, endangering satellites from various nations.
One noteworthy event in this trajectory occurred on October 30, 2015, when China conducted a flight test of a new anti-satellite missile known as the Dong Neng-3. The missile was tested at the Korla Missile Test Complex in western China, with the “final-phase missile interception test” taking place in the upper atmosphere. China claimed it was a land-based missile interceptor test, while the United States assessed the test as a non-destructive ASAT test. However, it’s worth noting that China has previously disguised anti-satellite tests as missile defense interceptor tests, making the intent and implications of such tests a subject of international scrutiny.
In May 2013, China launched a ballistic missile (DN-2) on a trajectory that reached altitudes exceeding 30,000 km, bringing it in close proximity to geosynchronous orbit. This orbit houses numerous communication and Earth-sensing satellites, raising concerns about potential counterspace capabilities directed toward this region.
Notably, China is also developing co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, which can approach satellite targets closely before deploying weapons to disable or destroy them. In 2008, China simulated such an attack by sending a miniature imaging satellite within 28 miles of the International Space Station without prior notification. This showcases China’s belief that demonstrating the capability to harm or eliminate satellites serves as a deterrent against potential adversaries.
China has also developed and launched several satellites which are testing technologies that could be used for co-orbital counterspace capabilities. None of these tests have resulted in a verifiable destructive incident. Primarily, China has been testing its rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) capabilities, a dual-use technology used to maneuver satellites in orbit near one another.
SJ-12, a Chinese satellite in LEO, conducted a series of remote proximity maneuvers with an older Chinese satellite, SJ-06F, in 2010. The maneuvers appeared to be slow, methodical, and intentional and occurred over several weeks in the summer of 2010. Whether this maneuvering is for nefarious purposes, possibly making it a co-orbital ASAT, or for peaceful purposes, such as for on-orbit servicing or active debris removal missions is unclear. ” China, Russia, and the United States all have satellites in GEO performing RPO activities around other satellites in orbit.
China has also been testing satellites with robotic arms, a dual-use technology that could be used as a test bed for docking operations for China’s future space station, active debris removal missions, or a co-orbital ASAT.
In a conflict, China could be capable of striking an adversary’s satellite ground stations with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, or long-range strike aircraft. China is pursuing laser
weapons to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites and their sensors and possibly already has a limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors.
China has the ability to jam common satellite communication bands and GPS signals, and it has made the development and deployment of satellite jamming systems a high priority. China is further developing jamming systems that will be able to target a large range of frequencies of commercial SATCOM as well as U.S. military-protected communication bands.
A paper from the China Electronic Technology Group Corporation proposed solutions for
“overcoming the high-power requirements for jamming U.S. millimeter wave (MMW) satellite communications by using space-based jammers hosted on small satellites, in a ‘David versus Goliath’ attack.” The authors further identified U.S. satellites that would be particularly susceptible to such an attack, like “the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS), and Global Broadcast Service (GBS) satellite constellations.”
China has also shown interest in developing HPM weapons for air and missile defense. In January 2017, Chinese media celebrated the work of expert Huang Wenhua, who developed a miniaturized HPM weapon capable of being placed on a ship. However, adding a mobile HPM system to a satellite would require further reductions in size, weight, and power in addition to a number of other integration challenges unique to the space environment.
Chinese writings and research efforts indicate that in a conflict it would attempt to conduct
cyberattacks against U.S. satellites and ground stations. Through the SSF, China has been integrating its advanced cyber capabilities with its counterspace and electronic warfare operations. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that: “The PLA could employ its cyberattack capabilities to establish information dominance in the early stages of a conflict to constrain an adversary’s actions, or slow its mobilization and deployment by targeting network-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and
reconnaissance (C4ISR), logistics, and commercial activities. China has already been implicated or suspected in several cyberattacks against U.S. satellites.
As China continues to advance its military space capabilities, it presents a growing concern for international space security and strategic stability. Vigilance and cooperation among spacefaring nations are essential to address the evolving challenges posed by these developments.
Developing the Shenlong Space Plane: A Strategic Leap
Recent revelations by a Chinese military expert have shed light on the Shenlong, a Chinese space plane poised to become a key asset within the newly established Strategic Support Force – the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) high-technology warfare unit. This development underscores China’s concerted efforts to bolster its military capabilities and assert its presence in the evolving landscape of space-based operations.
The Strategic Support Force encompasses three critical components: the Internet Army, the Aerospace Army, and Electronic Warfare Troops, positioning it as a multidisciplinary force prepared to navigate the complex realm of modern warfare.
A noteworthy addition to the force is the Shenlong space plane, a versatile platform designed to operate seamlessly in both the Earth’s atmosphere and the expanse of space. Drawing comparisons to the Pentagon’s experimental X-37B space plane, the Shenlong is an unmanned vehicle engineered for various strategic purposes.
Foremost among its roles is its function as a space weapons launch platform, signaling China’s ambitions to assert its capabilities in the arena of space warfare. The Shenlong’s repertoire extends to surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and early-warning missions, reflecting the broad spectrum of roles it’s poised to undertake.
Characterized by high-speed capabilities, exceptional maneuverability, and radar-evading stealth features, the Shenlong is primed for extended missions covering substantial distances. Its successful test flight in January 2011 marked a significant milestone, signaling China’s progress in the development of this advanced aerospace platform.
As the Shenlong space plane enters the fray, it represents a strategic leap for China, amplifying its presence in the realm of space-based military operations. This development warrants close observation, as it underscores the nation’s commitment to advancing its military capabilities and shaping the future of warfare in an era where space plays an increasingly pivotal role.
The Global Impact
China’s rise as a space superpower carries global implications. Its participation in international space collaborations, such as the International Space Station (ISS), showcases its commitment to peaceful cooperation in space exploration. However, its military activities in space have raised concerns about the weaponization of Earth’s orbit.
As China’s space program continues to evolve and expand, the international community must vigilantly monitor these developments. Striking a balance between collaborative space exploration and safeguarding the security and sustainability of space remains a paramount challenge in the coming years.
In conclusion, China’s journey from a fledgling space program to a dynamic space superpower exemplifies human ingenuity and ambition. As it ventures deeper into the cosmos, China’s actions and advancements will shape the future of space exploration, paving the way for new possibilities and challenges on Earth and beyond.
The country’s dedication to lunar and planetary exploration, coupled with its ambitious asteroid mining ventures and military space capabilities, solidifies its position as a global space superpower. The world watches with anticipation and apprehension as China continues to shape the future of space, reminding us of the delicate balance between the peaceful pursuit of knowledge and the potential militarization of the cosmos.
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