New Chinese 5-Year Space Plan Offers Few Surprises

New Chinese 5-Year Space Plan Offers Few Surprises

China released its latest 5-year plan for space activities today.  While it states that China will “unremittingly” pursue the “dream” of building itself into a space power, the plan itself offers only modest goals for that period, most of which have been discussed openly for some time. They include a multi-modular space station in the early 2020s, continued robotic exploration of the Moon, and a robotic Mars orbiter/lander/rover in 2020. Bolder goals apparently are in the works in the longer term, however.   A Chinese space official said at an associated press conference that a new super-heavy lift rocket is planned for around 2030.

This is the fourth in a series of 5-year plans — called “white papers” — that summarize prior achievements and lay out the path forward.  The earlier versions were released in 2000, 2006 and 2011.  The 2011 plan also was modest, but mentioned preliminary studies of human lunar landings.  Today’s document is silent on that topic, saying only that China wants to “lay a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space.”  For the near-term, space stations in earth orbit are the focus.  The white paper notes China’s well-known plan to launch a robotic cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, to its Tiangong-2 space station in 2017.  Tiangong-2 was launched in September 2016 and was occupied by a two-man crew for 30 days in October-November, the longest Chinese human spaceflight to date.  It is currently unoccupied and no one will be aboard when Tianzhou-1 docks and conducts a refueling test.  The launch is scheduled for April.

Tiangong-2 is small, just 8.6 metric tons, but China has said for years that it will orbit a three-module 60-ton space station by 2022 or 2023.  The new white paper provides no clarification on the timing, saying only that “We aim to complete the main research and development work on the space station modules, and start assembly and operation of the space station” within the 5-year period.

Robotic exploration of the Moon remains a prominent theme.  China has a three-prong strategy to send spacecraft successively to orbit, land, and return a sample from the Moon.  It accomplished the first two of those goals already with its Chang’e-1, -2 and -3 spacecraft.  Chang’e-3 was a lander that deployed the Yutu rover in 2013.  Although the rover suffered a mechanical failure and did not achieve all of its objectives, it and the lander transmitted data back to Earth long after their design lifetimes, as recently as this year.

The lunar sample return mission, Chang’e-5, is scheduled for launch in 2017 as restated today.  The white paper also confirms that Chang’e-4, originally designed as a backup for Chang’e-3, instead will break new ground by landing on the far side of the Moon, the first spacecraft designed to make a soft landing there.  The far side of the Moon always faces away from Earth, so a communications satellite will be needed to relay signals back to ground stations. Today’s white paper confirms that Chang’e-4 will be launched in 2018 and the relay satellite will be positioned at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point.

The white paper reasserts China’s plan to launch a robotic orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.  China’s only prior attempt at Mars exploration was a small orbiter included in Russia’s unsuccessful Phobos-Grunt mission.  It also says that studies and technological research will be conducted for a Mars sample return mission, asteroid exploration, and exploration of the Jupiter system, as well as research into the origin and evolution of the solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life.  No time frame is provided for launching spacecraft to achieve any of those objectives.

The white paper lists many earth-orbiting space science and space applications projects that are planned, as well as development of new launch vehicles.  China has introduced four new launch vehicles in the past 15 months, three of which use environmentally-friendly (liquid oxygen/kerosene) fuel:  Long March 5, Long March 6 and Long March 7.  A solid-fueled Long March 11 also had its first flight.  Long March 6 and 11 are for very small satellites, Long March 7 is for medium-sized satellites, and Long March 5 is China’s largest rocket to date.  Capable of placing 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), it is slightly smaller than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy (28.4 metric tons to LEO).  

China has said in the past that it is studying a much larger rocket, Long March 9, capable of placing 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit, similar to the U.S. Space Launch System now in development.  The white paper makes no promises about when such a rocket will be ready, noting the significant research and development that is first required: “Endeavors will be made to research key technologies and further study the plans for developing heavy-lift launch vehicles. Breakthroughs are expected in key technologies … for high thrust liquid oxygen and kerosene engines, and oxygen and hydrogen engines of such launch vehicles.  Thereafter the heavy-lift launch vehicle project will be activated.” 

At a press conference, however, Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, was more explicit, saying that a maiden launch is expected around 2030.  He noted the need “to make progress in the heavy-lift carrier rocket’s engine first, to create conditions for the whole project.”  (A brief clip from the press conference, with English subtitles, is posted on YouTube.)

The white paper provides China’s overall space vision:  “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly.”  It repeatedly asserts that China is committed to peaceful exploration and utilization of space and is opposed to “weaponization of or an arms race in outer space.”  Perhaps not surprisingly, no mention is made of China’s antisatellite (ASAT) activities, such as the 2007 test against one of its own satellites that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in the heavily-used LEO region.  Instead, the report notes that China has improved monitoring,
mitigation of, early warning and protection against space debris.

Innovation, independence and self-reliance are other themes stressed in the report. 

China’s space program is under the jurisdiction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  While in the United States it is common to distinguish among civil, commercial and national security space activities (although there clearly is overlap), such distinctions are not readily drawn in the Chinese program.  The white paper focuses on programs that generally would be considered civil space activities here, with national security explicitly mentioned only in broad terms.  The document’s sections explaining the space program’s purposes and vision, for example, state that the space program will “meet the demands of economic, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress” and “to effectively and reliably guarantee national security….” 

While it stresses the need for China to achieve its space goals independently, the white paper also
highlights China’s interest in international cooperation:  “China will promote the lofty cause of peace and development
together with other countries.”   In the past 5 years, China has signed 43 cooperative agreements or memoranda of understanding with 29 countries, it states, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.  The cooperation with the United States is through the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue and concerns space debris, space weather and response to global climate change.


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