China Issues New Five Year Space Plan

China Issues New Five Year Space Plan

China issued a new “white paper” today describing the achievements of its space program over the past 5 years and outlining its plans for the next 5 years.   China issued such white papers in 2000 and 2006, and the 2011 version offers little that is new.

According to the English-language version published on Xinhua’s website, China has relatively modest plans for its space program, most of which were previously known.  No ground-breaking plans were revealed.

“In the next five years, China will strengthen its basic capacities of the space industry, accelerate research on leading-edge technology, and continue to implement important space scientific and technological projects, including human spaceflight, lunar exploration, high-resolution Earth observation system, satellite navigation and positioning system, new-generation launch vehicles, and other priority projects in key fields. China will develop a comprehensive plan for construction of space infrastructure, promote its satellites and satellite applications industry, further conduct space science research, and push forward the comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development of China’s space industry.”

As China has indicated in the past, it is developing at least three new launch vehicles for various purposes.  A Delta-4 class launch vehicle, Long March 5, is expected to begin operations from a new launch site on Hainan Island in 2014.   Designed to place 25 tons into low Earth orbit or 14 tons into geostationary orbit, it will be the largest of China’s space launch vehicles.  China also is developing a new small launch vehicle, Long March 6, and a new mid-sized rocket, Long March 7, both of which are mentioned in the white paper.  No plans for a heavy-lift launch vehicle were announced today, however.   Instead the white paper says only that China will “conduct special demonstrations and pre-research on key technologies for heavy-lift launch vehicles.”

No new human spaceflight initiatives were announced either.  The white paper reiterates China’s focus on building an earth-orbiting space station, which has been known for some time.  China launched an unoccupied space station test module, Tiangong-1, in September. The unoccupied Shenzhou-8 spacecraft conducted automated rendezvous and docking operations with it twice.  China announced earlier that two more spacecraft, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10, will be sent to Tiangong-1 in the next 2 years, but has been unclear as to whether they will carry crews.  Some Chinese reports say that Shenzhou 10 will carry a crew — apparently including China’s first female taikonaut — while others say both will carry crews.  The white paper does not clarify the situation, saying only that “unmanned or manned rendezvous and docking” will take place.

Assertions by Chinese “experts” quoted in the Chinese media over the past several years that China was planning to send taikonauts to the Moon in this decade appealed to those who wanted to catalyze another “Moon race,” but could not be traced back to official government policy.   Today’s document, which presumably represents official policy, says only that China will conduct studies “on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.” 

Advancements are expected in the full range of Chinese application satellites, including weather, earth observation, communications, and navigation.   These satellites can be used for military and civil purposes, although the white paper makes scant reference to military space goals, policy, or activities.   Among its dual-use programs, China is building the Beidou-2 navigation satellite system which is intended to be similar to systems operated by the United States (GPS) and Russia (GLONASS) and under development by Europe (Galileo).  China announced earlier this week that Beidou-2 has reached initial operational capability, although only 10 satellites are currently in orbit.  These types of systems require 24 satellites to provide global, three dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude) services, although limited service can be achieved with fewer satellites. 

Space science also is part of China’s 5-year plan, but the white paper does not go any further than previous announcements.   An indication of China’s plans to send probes to Mars might have been expected considering that its first attempt — a small Mars orbiter that is part of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission — seems destined to failure, but nothing is mentioned in the white paper.   The three-step robotic lunar exploration program — orbiters, landers/rovers, and ultimately sample return — has been known for many years.  China already has launched two robotic lunar probes, Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2. 

Since the last white paper was issued in 2006, one of the defining moments in China’s space program was its decision to test an anti-satellite weapon against one of its own satellites in 2007.  The resulting debris — more than 3,000 pieces in heavily-used low Earth orbit — earned China international condemnation less for the military nature of the test than for imperiling the use of low Earth orbit by any country or company.  This new white paper asserts that China will continue to work on space debris monitoring and mitigation, including experimenting “with digital simulation of space debris collisions.”   In the preface, China states that it will “work together with the international community to maintain a peaceful and clean outer space…”

The military aspects of China’s space program are barely mentioned.  China restates its long standing official position of opposing the weaponization of space and to any arms race in space and supporting the use of space for peaceful purposes.  For years China and Russia have sponsored a draft treaty at the United Nations on preventing the placement of weapons in outer space, while at the same time China is developing anti-satellite weapons.  China also launches many “earth observation” satellites that are at least dual-use if not entirely military.   As China critics like Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) often point out, the Chinese space program also is conducted under the auspices of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

International cooperation is a major focus of the white paper, with China laying out its international cooperative efforts to date and its hopes for the future.   China appears to be most interested in leadership in the Asia-Pacific region and with developing countries.  With regard to the United States, the white paper says that the head of NASA “visited China and the two sides will continue to make dialogue regarding the space field.”   Language in the appropriations billl that funds NASA, however, prohibits the agency — and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — from spending any funds to work with China unless authorized by Congress or if certain exceptions are met.

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