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China Is Gearing Up To Conquer Its Final Frontier: Outer Space

China aspires to use its advanced space technology for its development needs and to reap economic dividends.

16/12/2016 3:48 AM IST | Updated 19/12/2016 8:38 AM IST
Petar Kujundzic / Reuters
The Long March II-F rocket loaded with China's unmanned space module Tiangong-1 lifts off from the launch pad in the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province September 29, 2011.

China has emerged as one of the major "space-faring" nations in the 21st century. Today, from merely seeking to enhance their reputation and prestige from outer-space explorations, China aims to harvest space-based resources—such as Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP), asteroid mining and lunar exploration—and establish a permanent presence via its space station.

China aims to harvest space-based resources—Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP), asteroid mining and lunar exploration—and establish a permanent presence via its space station.

China's space solar ambitions were outlined in a report by its leading space agency, China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), which stated that by 2050, "the first commercial level SPS system will be in operation at GEO." Significantly, there are divergent perspectives amongst Chinese experts who specialise in security studies, and those who are space scientists and policymakers, as to whether exploration of space-based resources is indeed feasible for China. In general, Chinese experts on China's missile defence, nuclear, and regional security studies are "pessimists" in regard to China's capability to achieve long-term space goals such SBSP or asteroid mining. They believe that most of these goals articulated by Chinese space policymakers or scientists are aimed at getting state funding for their projects. On the other hand, experts from the China Reform Forum, situated close to the Central Party School in Beijing, believes that long-term space investment is of the highest priority for China's leadership. This is historically vindicated by the fact that in 1999, Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin personally named China's first unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou (Our Divine Land), and wrote the calligraphy that was imprinted on the side of the spacecraft, thereby setting to rest Mao's assertion that China can stand up to nothing since it cannot even put a potato in outer space.

China aspires to use its advanced space technology for its development needs and to reap economic dividends. According to Wu Ji, director general of China's National Space Science Centre, President Xi Jinping hopes space investments will lead to innovation in robotics, artificial intelligence and rejuvenate the economy. Wu and other fellow researchers have requested President Xi to increase China's space budget especially in space science from Yuan 4.7 billion ($ 695 million) in 2015-2016 to Yuan 15.6 billion ($ 5.6 billion) by 2026-30. This kind of space research, Wu states, will move away from purely short-term projects such as building rockets, military satellites and manned spacecraft, to long-term development of cutting-edge space technology with benefits for the economy. The push behind space research is to encourage private companies, besides the state-owned enterprises, to enter the space exploration domain. Liu Ruopeng, founder of Hong Kong-based Kuang-Chi Science Ltd, stated that commercial activity and invention will grow exponentially in outer space in China in the next 10 years.

The emergent influence of China's actions in space have the direct capability to determine whether the environment in space is rule-based or a source of conflict.

China's next big space ambition is to exploit resources like titanium, helium 3 and water from the far side of the moon. Its Chang'e lunar exploration program, launched on Long March rockets, is an ongoing robotic mission to the moon led by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Besides discovering titanium and helium 3, discovering water on the moon's surface is going to be vital for any ambitions for a lunar human settlement. Wu Weirin, the head designer of China's lunar missions, in an interview to the BBC, revealed that China aims for long-term exploration and a research base on the lunar surface. With regard to asteroid mining, Ye Peijian, from CAST stated that China is investing in research on both Mars and asteroid exploration. Hexi Baoyin, Yang Chen and Junfeng Li at Tsinghua University in Beijing have published findings on how to nudge an asteroid into earth's orbit. The idea is to capture a Near Earth Object (NEO) or asteroid with a low-energy orbit and place it on Earth's orbit temporarily. This could enable them to develop the capacity and technology to extract resources from NEOs. On 13 December 2012, China's Chang'e 2 flew as close as 3.2 km past asteroid Toutatis, which is about 7 million kilometres away from Earth. It managed to capture close pictures of the asteroid, making China the fourth country (after the US, EU and Japan), to examine an asteroid from an unmanned spacecraft.

The means nations pursue to access energy and material resources in space make possible entirely new avenues of power projection.

China has also invested heavily in developing its own space station by 2020. Named Tiangong (Heavenly Palace), it launched Tiangong 1 in 2011. Tiangong 2 in September this year and the Tiangong 3 is expected to be established by 2020. The Tiangong orbital space station will support three astronauts for long-term stay, and will consist of a 20-tonne core module, as well as two research modules. Given the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled to retire by 2025, Tiangong may be the only human space station we are left with.

The emergent influence of China's actions in space have the direct capability to determine whether the environment in space is rule-based or a source of conflict. Moreover, the means nations pursue to access energy and material resources in space make possible entirely new avenues of power projection. In the 19th century, it would have seemed preposterous if someone had told a farmer in Yunnan that he could connect with a farmer in California or Punjab to discuss crop yield within seconds via the internet. Exponential technology waits for no one. The day is not far when intensified economic activity in space will not seem extraordinary or preposterous.

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