They will not be overtaken


Yuko Shimizu

The People’s Republic of China is becoming a leader in the space race.

China by the end of the next decade may strengthen its position in outer space so much that it will become a comparable player to the United States, said academician Lev Zeleny, scientific head of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, to RIA Novosti.

“Maybe in the middle or late 2030s, China will increase its space presence so much that it will become a major or at least comparable player with the United States,” the academician believes. — “Gradually in planetary research China is beginning to overtake the United States. It is obvious that it is still overtaking Russia, but hopefully only for now.”

The Russian scientist’s predictions confirm the fears of American specialists. And at the end of April this year, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that the U.S. is competing with China for a place on the Moon and expressed fear that Beijing may outrun Washington and claim its rights to the South Pole. Nelson has repeatedly stated before — the US is in a space race with the PRC — and warned the US Congress that insufficient funding could be a “disaster” for US leadership in space. And, most likely, that “catastrophe” has already happened, and China is overtaking the U.S. in all areas of space development and research.

Most surprisingly, China is essentially a newcomer to space. Its space program has made such a rapid leap in just two decades. In 1970, China’s first artificial Earth satellite, Dong Fang Hong 1 (“The East is Red”), was launched into space. Then rocket and satellites were launched and put into orbit. In total, 33 satellites and four unmanned spacecraft were successfully launched from the Jiuquan Cosmodrome until October 2003, as well as about a thousand experimental launches of other rockets of various types. It wasn’t until 2003 that the first manned space flight took place. That’s not a big start.

But after that, China broke into the limited club of the world’s space powers at a truly cosmic pace. At present, our old students have independently mastered almost all space technologies and activities: automatic and manned flights, orbital station, planetary exploration and so on and so forth. A reusable spacecraft is being developed. It is quite reasonable to say that China may soon overtake not only Russia, but also the United States in the space race.

Having leaped over several stages of space development, China has made a serious bid for leadership. Now China is the only country that has an almost completed national orbital station, and the moment may come when China’s Moon Palace will become the only inhabited site in Earth’s orbit. In terms of launches to the Moon and to Mars, China actually overtakes the United States, as it does in the number of space rocket launches. Several successful lunar missions and the successful landing of the Mars rover have put China in the forefront of interplanetary missions. China’s Martian program is already planning the next step — sending a return probe to the Red or Fiery (as China calls Mars) planet by 2030. It is possible that at this rate of development of Chinese science and technology, the launch may take place earlier. This apparatus will deliver samples of Martian soil back to Earth. And then China expects to send a manned mission to Mars.

Now private companies have joined the space race in China, which will strengthen the position of this country, competing with Elon Musk and his space programs. It should not be forgotten that to realize its space plans, China has built four cosmodromes on its own territory. No other country in the world has so many. These platforms can launch vehicles of different classes and types and for different purposes.

It can be said that Chinese space technologies have been put on the stream. The level of development of science and technology, as well as management, makes it possible to adopt completely new approaches to space technology. For example, in 2021, China launched a production line using smart technologies to build small orbital satellites. This factory is capable of producing up to 240 spacecraft annually. The new line will significantly save time and labor resources, and the satellite construction process will be accelerated by more than 40%.

Interestingly, the new plant is located on the territory of the Wuhan National Aerospace Industry Base, which covers 68.8 square kilometers. More than 100 enterprises are concentrated there, capable of producing products worth 30 billion yuan (more than $4.6 billion) annually. Wuhan, which is widely known to the world as the alleged source of a new coronavirus pandemic, turns out to be the center of the space industry as well.

The Chinese space program is characterized by a minimal number of accidents and failures, which indicates a high technological level, discipline and thorough approach to business. The Chinese space program is also characterized by clear planning, which does not depend on market conditions and is provided with stable financing.

For example, China’s lunar program is characterized by a clear stage-by-stage implementation. First, the development of near-lunar space and lunar landing. Then a manned flight to the moon. After that, China plans to create conditions for a permanent presence on the lunar surface: deployment of production, extraction of solar energy in space to provide the base with electricity. The next stage will be launches from the moon, long-distance manned missions, mineral development and asteroid exploration.

To achieve its lunar and Martian goals, build space-based solar power plants (SBSP), and other far-reaching plans, China plans to use the Changzhen-9 super-heavy rocket currently under development, with its first test flight scheduled for 2030. According to Li Hong, deputy general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the Changzhen-9 will be able to deliver up to 130 tons of payloads to low Earth orbit and a spacecraft weighing up to 50 tons to the Moon. The giant rocket will also be capable of sending a 44-ton payload to a transitional Martian orbit. If all that is planned is realized (and Chinese plans are usually realized), by mid-century (i.e., by the 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049) China will indeed become the leading space power with a permanent human presence on the Moon.

At the same time, Beijing has planned another epoch-making experiment — the launch of a spacecraft to the borders of the solar system. For this purpose, the Chinese space probe will cover a distance about 100 times greater than the distance between the Sun and the Earth. The project aims to conduct scientific research and experiments at the edge of the solar system, about 15 billion kilometers from Earth.

In the meantime, the world’s largest Chinese radio telescope FAST, which has reached full capacity, is probing these distances remotely. At the same time, equipment is being developed to solve unprecedentedly complex tasks, such as ultra-long-range space communications.

Such a thing is unlikely to afford any other country, including the United States.