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China in space - How long a reach? - Sep 28, 2013

The International Astronautical Congress is meeting in Beijing. But what, exactly, does China want from outer space? - Sep 28, 2013

THE Soviet Union in 1961. The United States in 1962. China in 2003. It took a long time for a taikonaut to join the list of cosmonauts and astronauts who have gone into orbit around Earth and (in a few cases) ventured beyond that, to the Moon. But China has now arrived as a space power, and one mark of this has been the International Astronautical Federation’s decision to hold its 64th congress in Beijing.


The congress, which is attended by representatives of all the world’s space agencies, from America and Russia to Nigeria and Syria, is a place where eager boffins can discuss everything from the latest in rocket design and the effects of microgravity on the thyroid to how best an asteroid might be mined and how to weld metal for fuel tanks.


In this section

How long a reach?

Cylinder head

Sea wolves

A dispatch from the front

Cancer cartography


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United States

Manned spaceflight



All useful stuff, of course. But space travel has never been just about the science. It is also an arm of diplomacy, and so the congress serves too as a place where officials can exchange gossip and announce their plans.


And that was just what Ma Xingrui, the head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and thus, in effect, the congress’s host, did. He confirmed that an unmanned lunar mission, Chang’e 3, will be launched in the first half of December. This means, if all goes well, that before the year is out a Chinese rover will roam the surface of the Moon. It will collect and analyse samples of lunar regolith (the crushed rock on the Moon’s surface that passes for soil there). It will make some ultraviolet observations of stars. And it will serve to remind the world that China intends—or at least says it intends—to send people to the Moon sometime soon as well.


Mr Ma also confirmed that China plans to build a permanent space station by 2020. Such manned stations are expensive and scientifically useless, as the example of the largely American International Space Station (ISS), currently in orbit, eloquently demonstrates. But they do have diplomatic uses, and that was why Mr Ma reiterated in his speech that foreign guests will be welcome on board his station—in contradistinction to the ISS’s rather pointed ban on taikonauts—though any visitors will first have to learn Chinese. What he did not do, though, was comment on the aspect of China’s space programme that most concerns outsiders, namely exactly how militarised it is.


One Chinese rover

Most space programmes are military to some extent. Both America and the Soviet Union used modified missiles to launch their satellites and spacemen in the early days. And even in the days of the Space Shuttle, NASA was employing that device to put spy satellites into orbit, and recover them. For China’s space effort these still are the early days, so civilian and military applications remain intertwined.


In July, for example, the CNSA launched a trio of satellites, allegedly as part of a project to clean up space near Earth by removing orbital debris. Such debris is indeed a problem, given the number of launches that have happened since the hoisting of Sputnik in 1957. Nor did China itself help when, during the testing of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, it blew one of its own redundant satellites into about 150,000 pieces. So a charitable view might be that this mission was a piece of contrition. Cynics, however, suspect that what was actually launched was another type of antisatellite weapon—or, at most, a piece of dual-use technology which could act as a space-sweeper as well.


One of the newly launched probes was indeed equipped with a robotic arm of the sort that might pick up space litter. The other two were, the story went, to stand in for bits of debris. But once initial tests were over, the satellite with the robotic arm made a number of unusual manoeuvres and approached not one of the devices it was launched with, but rather an ageing satellite in a different orbit—just the sort of behaviour that would be useful if you wanted to eliminate an observation or communication satellite belonging to another country.


The Chinese are not the only ones working on space weaponry, of course. America is busy in the field, too. And that accounted for a slightly more desolate atmosphere at the meeting than is normal at astronautical congresses. American law prohibits NASA from collaborating with China, or even organising bilateral exchanges with it. That rather kiboshed the plethora of booths the agency would normally have brought to the party, particularly when it is celebrating the activities of a rover of its own—Curiosity, its fourth and largest roaming the surface of Mars.


This did not stop NASA’s boss, Charles Bolden, addressing the conference, though. And more pertinently, Mr Bolden also had a note from Congress letting him off the legal leash so that, though he still could not talk with Mr Ma or his colleagues at the CNSA, he could at least meet members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to discuss matters of mutual interest. These matters included using satellites to study Earth itself—the most useful part of space science. But it would be surprising if the question of how to clean up space litter had not somehow come up too.

Sep 28, 2013