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    Greater China
     Jan 9, 2009
China making leaps in space
By Peter J Brown

In 2009, China will be pursuing its ambitious plans for space in all sorts of ways. But in terms of missions and milestones, China will find it quite hard to surpass the stellar success of the spacewalk during the Shenzhou 7 mission in September. China ended 2008 with 11 successful launches, and set a new record for launches in a single year. China intends to set another new record this year.

At least four new BeiDou-2 (Compass) satellites will be launched in 2009 by the team at the China Satellite Navigation Project Center. And a Russian launch vehicle will carry a Chinese micro-satellite into space in late 2009. If everything goes according to plan, Yinghuo-1, China's first Mars probe, will be another

 

noteworthy achievement for the Shanghai Institute of Satellite Engineering.

"I would expect China to maintain its steady pace of deploying and maintaining constellations of unmanned satellites for practical applications such as weather, communication, and navigation," said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "I would also expect to see them increase their involvement in multilateral cooperative efforts such as environmental monitoring, communications standards, and unmanned lunar exploration."

According to a report issued last year by Paris-based Euroconsult, "World Prospects for Government Space Markets", the China National Space Administration's (CNSA) current budget is about US$1.3 billion, up 6% from 2007. Launch vehicle development accounts for 25% of the estimated overall budget followed by human spaceflight and Earth observation, with 20% each of overall Chinese investment. Satellite navigation and satellite communications both represent about 10% of the Chinese space budget.

China's Earth observation budget was estimated at $260 million in 2007 and is growing steadily from the $160 million in 2003. Although satellites are marked as civil government expenditure, China's program no doubt includes many military surveillance satellites, and Euroconsult reports budgets through 2012 will at least hold steady. China's "HJ" fleet of Earth observation satellites equipped with radar or optical sensors will continue to grow over the next three years. Expansion of China's maritime surveillance satellite fleet also continues with the launch in 2009 of Haiyang-2, China's third maritime surveillance satellite.

As for the joint China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) Program, Brazil is increasing its contribution to the program from 30% for the two existing satellites to 50-80% for CBERS-3 and 4 which are now being tested. These will be launched perhaps in 2010 and 2012. Brazilian investment in these programs increased to $71 million in 2007 from $46 million in 2006, according to Euroconsult.

The often heated debate about whether or not China's space program is strictly a military operation with a few civilian elements will continue in 2009.

China's BX-1 companion satellite's close pass of the International Space Station during the Shenzhou 7 mission sparked the latest round in this debate. But conflicting statements by Ye Peijian, chief commander and designer of China's first lunar explorer - the Chang'e 1, which was launched in 2007 - and by Hu Hao, director of the National Defense Commission's Lunar Exploration Program Center, went largely unnoticed earlier last year.

In late February,2008, Ye Peijian disclosed during an interview aired on China Central TV that China was planning to launch its second lunar probe, Chang'e 2, in 2009. He did not provide any details. Following Chang'e 2, China's next moon missions include deploying of a lunar rover around 2012 followed by a second lunar rover in 2017.

Only a few days later, Hu Hao told the People's Daily, "Chang'e 1's backup satellite was being upgraded, and designated as Chang'e 2 [and] that currently there is no specific timetable for Chang'e 2's launch."

Why the director of the National Defense Commission's Lunar Exploration Program Center felt compelled to set the record straight in this instance is unclear. After all, Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China's lunar exploration project, had been interviewed by CRI in December 2007 about the Chang'e 1 backup spacecraft. He did not mention an onboard systems upgrade nor any specific launch date, but he said that once renamed and launched as Chang'e 2, it would not be subjected to the complex maneuvers that Chang'e 1 went through, and, that Chang'e 2's orbit around the moon and its altitude would be different as well.

These interviews regarding Chang'e 2 provide further evidence that China's military - the space wing of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) - is firmly in charge, but they also suggest that coordination and communication between branches or agencies within China's space program are sometimes lacking. But this is a viewpoint that many might not accept, as it somewhat mirrors the "rogue operation" theory which surfaced during China's 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test - something that critics portrayed as pure fiction.

Remarks by China's President Hu Jintao during the celebration in December of the 30th anniversary of China's economic reforms suggest that China recognizes the need for greater transparency in all sectors. However, this in itself is no guarantee that the Chinese space program will suddenly become more transparent in 2009.

Several incidents over the past five years indicate that China's space culture is quite comfortable working behind closed doors. In September 2003, for example, the official Xinhua news agency reported that China had successfully tested its Pioneer 1 rocket, China's "first four-stage solid-fuel rocket capable of putting small satellites into space on short notice". It took almost two years for the truth to come out that the Pioneer I rocket launch at China's Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center had failed in 2003. In late 2006, the loss of the Sinosat-2 satellite was subjected to a news blackout lasting almost a month. And in 2008, when a Chinese-built Nigerian communications satellite stopped working, it took several days before the true status of this malfunctioning satellite was revealed.

Rapidly replacing that lost satellite capacity in Africa is one of China's and specifically, China Great Wall Industries Corp's (CGWIC), top overseas satellite priorities for 2009. CGWIC, the space launch services and satellite export arm of the Chinese government, is actively engaged with partners all over the world. That said, it remains a relatively closed enterprise. A spokeswoman for CGWIC would not share any of the company's plans for 2009.

"Your questions are mostly concerning the future working plan of China Space and CGWIC, and considering we usually only announce the work we had done, I can not reply your questions in your previous letters for now," she replied via e-mail.

One can quite easily contrast the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) acceptance of the need for transparency with China's seeming reluctance to go down the same path. Here is a excellent case in point. China's desire to make great strides in manned spaceflight in particular is quite apparent, and in 2009, China will be able to closely study additional details about the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster now that NASA has released its new 400-page report on this disaster. While some objected to the decision by NASA to disclose this information in the closing days of 2008, it happened anyway.

John Logsdon, for example, former director of GWU's Space Policy Institute and a member of the original Columbia accident investigation board, objected to NASA's decision, but not because its release might somehow benefit China. "Those people are dead. Knowing in specifics how they died should be a private matter," Logsdon told the Associated Press.

Although no Chinese manned spaceflights are scheduled for 2009, the NASA report - following on the heels of Russia's analysis of the recent violent landing of a Soyuz capsule in April, 2008 - may aid the Chinese as they seek to identify better "taikonaut" safety procedures and equipment options for future Shenzhou missions or other flights returning from a Chinese space station when that appears in the next decade.

As for the exercise in relationship-building between NASA and CNSA which commenced in 2006 and evolved into a formal Working Group in early 2008, this is a delicate ongoing process involving "potential areas of future cooperation". Under the NASA-CNSA working group, cordial exchanges are taking place, but it would be wrong and misleading to characterize them as substantive and somehow aimed at achieving any specific objectives. Will the next NASA administrator get together with CNSA administrator Sun Laiyan at CNSA headquarters or elsewhere in 2009? That remains to be seen, although it might be a good idea to have this happen sooner than later.

"US-China competition on any aspect of peaceful space development, whether real or a media creation, is detrimental to both terrestrial relations between the two and the sustainability of space development," said Brian Weeden, technical consultant at the Colorado-based Secure World Foundation. "I would encourage the incoming US administration to look for topics of possible cooperation and engagement with China on space issues in the scientific or civil realm. There are plenty of areas of common interest, including climate change research, space weather, disaster management, and the long-term effects of microgravity on humans, where cooperation would be beneficial to both the US and China."

As far as China and the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) is concerned, China has nothing to lose in 2009 by quickly compelling the incoming Barack Obama administration to openly demonstrate its willingness to depart from previous George W Bush administration positions. In terms of recent UN votes on ASAT-related matters, for example, a united effort by China, Russia and others to bring measures to a vote that in turn isolate the US have been remarkably successful, including one in late 2008 where the US stood completely alone in its opposition to the proposed measure.

"The larger unknowns to me are whether the Chinese will make progress on a heavy-lift Long March 5 in the coming year and whether they will conduct another ASAT test. On the latter, I would hope they don't - but that if they do - then they will take steps to avoid creating even more space debris which are such a threat to all space-faring nations," said Pace.

Although there is no sign that as 2009 gets underway of any overseas Chinese space scientists and engineers seeking to return to China, an announcement during the 11th Convention of Overseas Chinese Scholars in Science and Technology which was held in Guangzhou in late December is worth noting. A financial incentive of up to 5 million yuan (US$731,000), among other things, will be offered to overseas Chinese entrepreneurs and professionals who settle in Guangzhou and open new businesses. For this reason, it will be interesting to see if any new aerospace ventures arise there in 2009.

Keep in mind much was said in 2008 about how many Indian space scientists and engineers who had been living abroad were now expressing a strong interest in returning home to join the ranks of the India Space Research Organization (ISRO) following the launch of ISRO's Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe.

Another reason why China may be eager to attract new talent involves ongoing efforts to create new satellite applications. The mass devastation caused by the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan looms large here. In 2009, China is placing considerable emphasis in particular on developing and deploying new satellite-based resources for domestic disaster management and emergency relief operations.

At the same time, however, this activity has obvious dual-use implications as many of these new applications might be well suited for use on the battlefield, too.

In mid-December, China, Japan and South Korea announced that they will "enhance cooperation in developing a comprehensive disaster management framework, working out measures to reduce vulnerability to disaster and minimize its damage, and strengthening effective disaster management at the national, local and community levels, according to the joint statement," according to an official Xinhua news report.

Exactly how this new framework will fit in with other ongoing regional efforts such as the Disaster Management Support System taking shape as part of the broader "Sentinel Asia" initiative is unclear.

"Sentinel Asia" is a project that has been nurtured by the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF), and the APRSAF Earth Observation Working Group already has satellite communications-based enhancements on its disaster management agenda for 2008-2009. China also has disaster management as a important component of the Asia-Pacific Satellite Cooperation Organization (APSCO), a Beijing-sponsored group which includes Pakistan and Iran, but does not include South Korea or Japan, which is the founder of APRSAF.

China is also a member of APRSAF, and in 2009, China and Japan may want to consider initiating a process whereby APSCO and APRSAF mesh into a single regional body, although this recommendation may, in reality, be too farfetched.

In 2009, China will go on constructing its new launch facility on Hainan Island where the new Long March 5 heavy lift launch vehicle will be based. At the same time, China will be keeping a close eye on two new low-cost launch vehicles that may challenge China's Long March rockets over the next decade in what is best described as the cheapest ride into the space race. All the components have finally arrived, and SpaceX's Falcon 9 in the US is now being assembled at Cape Canaveral, while ISRO is also starting to beat the drum about its new GSLV-MKIII low-cost launch vehicle.

Emerging low-cost launch options aside, NASA begins the new year with rampant speculation swirling about the future of the Ares launch vehicles, part of NASA's Constellation program. The future of the H2 rocket operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is also anyone's guess at this point. In Europe, the European Space Agency is being pulled in different directions and is trying to maintain a united front.

In fact, China, Russia and India are sailing on relatively smooth waters in space as 2009 begins. They are perhaps the only countries where predictability and stability exists with respect to the budget, direction and scope of their respective government space programs. For everyone else, what lies ahead in 2009 is a tremendous amount of uncertainty.

There is one more variable that is worth mentioning. As China's economy sours, this might exert a drag on China's timetable for all of its planned space activities in 2009 and beyond. This seems an unlikely outcome given the important - and expanding - PLA space connection, it cannot be ruled out entirely.

Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist from Maine, USA.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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