China has demonstrated its military capability in orbit, but its space ambitions are directed more towards serving the needs of its developing society
Beyond the international controversy over China's anti-satellite test in January, two lower-profile events, the May Nigcomsat-1 and July Chinasat 6B launches, represent the real direction the world's most populous nation is taking on the high frontier.
Rather than just developing weapons to counter potential adversaries' space-based military assets, China's overall aim is to independently deploy constellations to deliver services for its rapidly developing society, as well as other nations.
David Soo, affiliated fellow of the Netherlands' International Institute for Asian Studies, believes the launch of the Thales Alenia Space-built Chinasat is the beginning of the end for foreign interference in China's space activities, such as US International Traffic in Arms Regulations vetos, and portends a boost for China's commercial launch services.
"The significance [of the launch of an ITAR-free satellite] is that: one, it can be done and two, Chinese launchers are very much cheaper that Western ones," he says. Thales Alenia Space says the Spacebus 4000C2 satellite platform used for Chinasat 6B has no components "from the US Munitions List and [therefore] subject to ITAR control".
Access to Western technology that cannot be blocked by other foreign powers can only aid Beijing's space ambitions. Historically China's satellite launches have been hindered by ITAR restrictictions, contributing to a limited 24 commercial launches over 22 years.This pales in comparison with just one launch provider, International Launch Services, which made more than 30 commercial launches between 1995 and 2000.
The US Department of State's bureau of political military affairs, which oversees ITAR, declines to comment, but the Vienna-based European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) says Washington's export restrictions mean certain launch providers are excluded from launching satellites with US components. The development of ITAR-free satellites means that limitation will be circumvented.
In its June report on China, ESPI agrees the country wants to make the most of economic opportunities provided by access to the international space market. "[Chinese] leaders continue to refer to a market-oriented economy. This will certainly imply competition between the Chinese and foreign actors in the near future," the report says.
Two such market wins are the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST)-built Nigcomsat-1 for Nigeria and Venesat-1 for Venezuela, which is to be launched next year.These were not only competitive wins, but also geopolitically important as both countries are oil-rich and non-aligned.
Both spacecraft use CAST's DongFangHong (DFH)-4 satellite bus, its first three-axis-stabilised spacecraft. Although the DFH-4-based Sinosat 2 broadcast satellite failed because of solar array deployment problems in 2006, that is not necessarily a problem, according to Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a senior researcher on space policy and programmes at France's national centre for scientific research. "Even if it is not the best satellite," she says, "do [developing country] customers really want something that good if they can get it so cheap?"
While its existing spacecraft, even with their reliability issues, may be sufficient for Beijing's short-term geopolitical goals, the government's space activities white paper, published in 2003, outlines a more ambitious future. Its targets are Earth observation, satellite telecommunications and broadcasting, and a space-based navigation system independent of the US military's Navstar GPS and the European Union's Galileo.
Shanghai-based Chinese space programme watcher Chen Lan is confident the growing superpower can deliver the white paper's goals. "China will have its own comprehensive space infrastructure for the first time at the beginning of the next decade," he says.
"You will see building of the navigation constellation the data relay system space environment monitoring system Earth observation satellites covering high-resolution military reconnaissance radar, oceanographic and weather monitoring satellites, and more," says Chen.
This building of constellations is reflected in the Chinese launch rate. According to industry analyst Ascend Worldwide, China is only third behind the USA and Russia in launches so far this year. Russia has conducted 12 launches for a total of 28 satellites the USA 11 for 21 spacecraft and China has launched eight satellites using seven rockets.
One of these seven launches was of a Beidou geostationary satellite for the future Chinese navigation system. Four Beidou-related launches have taken place since 2000. Space-based navigation is a "strategic domain" for China, says ESPI.
The Chinese government's follow-up to its 2003 space activities white paper, published in December 2006, says launch and implementation of the Beidou system is a "major task" to be completed by 2012.
The Beidou system is a series of geostationary satellites for the Compass positioning system, which became public in 2005 when China requested the necessary frequencies and orbital slots from the International Telecommunications Union.
China has also joined the European Union's Galileo satellite navigation programme and has 12 contracts relating to infrastructure elements including search-and-rescue transponders. Although China has joined Galileo, Soo is not so sure the agreement will be followed through. "The speculation is that they may be thinking of a Chinese GPS and rethinking their involvement in Galileo."
Going it alone?
Others are less willing to believe China will withdraw from Galileo to focus on its own system, which may prove to be less capable. "On electronics alone they are a generation behind Western spacecraft," according to Sourbes-Verger.
Given that it is trailing in technology, co-operation would seem to be China's only route to achieving its space ambitions, but the provocative ASAT test shows that Beijing's does not always adhere to its stated policies. There has been an international outcry at the massive debris field created by the ASAT test, in which a satellite was destroyed by the impact of a ground-launched missile, yet the government's 2006 white paper says: "China will make efforts to explore...means to mitigate and reduce space debris".
ESPI takes the view that the test could harm China's hopes for co-operation, saying: "The recent ASAT test may create a more reluctant attitude among potential co-operation partners". This disparity between policy and action leads ESPI to question the degree of control the Central Military Commission (CMC) has over the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The CMC is supposed to oversee the army, which runs China's military space programme as well as its manned spaceflight effort.
Begun in 1992, the human spaceflight programme has three stages that include the manned launches of Shenzhou-5 and -6 in 2003 and 2005, a future spacewalk, a docking between two spacecraft and operation of the resulting space laboratory.
But the spacewalk mission is looking more distant after the delay, announced in 2006, with the admission from China's first astronaut Yang Liwei, now vice-director of the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre, that only pre-tank training had begun (Flight International, 29 May-4 June 2006).
Indications are that having demonstrated its superpower capability with the ASAT test, and with no sense of a Cold War-like competition with the USA, China is not budgeting for rapid progress in manned space missions.
Chen sees the manned programme as an aside, with longer-term space technology development more important. "China has also increased investments in technology, such as electric propulsion and air launch," he says. "The manned programme does not represent the [space] programme."
China's focus on advancing its space capabilities is not lost on Western industry. Francois Auque, chief executive of European manufacturer EADS Space, has said: "Within 10-15 years, if we go on like this, China will be selling us satellites."
Source: Flight International