Early next month, China’s first space station Tiangong-1 which is out of control, is expected to fall back to earth. But this should not be seen as a setback as this was merely a prototype for a much larger Space Station that will be up by 2022. In any case in September 2016, China launched the second crewed laboratory called Tiangong-2 which is part of the experiments that will validate technologies that will go with the launch of the core module of the Chinese Space Station in 2018.
Some of this information was disclosed at the annual meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the upper house of the Chinese parliament, by the chief designer of the manned space programme, Zhou JIanping who is a member of the body. He said that the station would comprise of a core and two 20-ton modules in the shape of a “T”. Besides laboratories for various scientific work, the station would also an optical module, essentially, a telescope with a 2-meter diameter lens with a resolution similar to that of the Hubble, even though its field of view would be 300 times larger. Currently the International Space Station is the only such facility functioning and it is expected to retire by 2024 or so.
China’s space endeavours are the result of its strategy to shape the international system in a manner that better suits its interests. It has long believed that the system as shaped by countries like the US is tilted in their favour. So now it is creating independent capabilities in a range of areas to ensure that besides protecting its own territorial integrity, it is able to influence the global system militarily, diplomatically, and economically.
Abilities in space have been identified by China as one of the areas which are an important component of a country’s comprehensive national power. So, it is seeking to become a power at par with the US, EU and Russia. It is aware, of course, that its vast capabilities in space make the United States the formidable military power that it is.
China is late-comer in the space arena. So, even though it has taken impressive strides in its launch vehicle and satellite technologies, America is still far ahead. One measure of this is that in the decade since 2007, the US has launched 553 satellites, as compared to 188 by China and 116 by Russia.
Space is seen as a vital battlefield in the area of information. The Chinese believe that their military must be ready to fight informationised local wars where information superiority is the key to victory in future wars. In this space plays a significant role as it is the means through which you can detect what the adversary is doing, better direct your own forces to counter the enemy. At one level there is need to target the enemy, at the other, to deny him information on your own movements.
Historically, it is the PLA which ran China’s space programme and so it is not surprising that it has a significant military focus stressing communications, surveillance, satellite navigation and meterology. In addition to this there is a manned programme as well as robot exploration. In 2016 alone, China conducted 22 major launches which put 33 satellites in space.
China is now pouring money into space programmes in a frantic bid to reach the levels achieved by Russia, EU and the US. In February, China launched a scaled-down version or a reusable space plane which has both military and civilian applications. As a military vehicle it is capable of penetrating missile defence systems, while civilian applications can be to carry supplies for the space station. This was just one of two ongoing projects relating to space planed in China. The other is being developed by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). The US has given Boeing a contract to develop the XS-1 that would launch vertically as a rocket and return to ground as a plane. The secretive X-37B a reusable test vehicle of the US Air Force returned to earth after a two-year mission last year.
As usual, China intends to be the number one nation in space. But it has a lot of catching up to do, after all, the US has landed a man on the moon and has been a space power since the 1960s. Where the heaviest Chinese space launch vehicle the Long March 5 can can loft a 13 tonne satellite to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), the Space X, a private company in the US has developed a rocket which can hoist 26 tonnes, the old NASA Saturn V which was used in the moon programme could life twice that.
At present China’s main focus is on building it constellations of communications, navigation and scientific satellites, many of which have dual uses. It also has a significant counter-space programme aimed at blinding American satellites in the event of conflict. But on balance, the US is still far ahead and is much more capable in using space for its military activities, though China has made breakthroughs in certain areas like quantum communications whose implications are yet to unfold.
Greater Kashmir March 12, 2018