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