New Scientist Reviews and Puts China’s Space Program in Perspective

China’s lunar robotic rover was dismissed as a tragic “me too” exercise by a country lagging decades behind the world’s leading space powers.

This common reaction missed the point. Jade Rabbit’s successful launch, landing and exploration is evidence of China’s meteoric rise in the space stakes, and one that will only accelerate. “It is a classic example of the tortoise and the hare,” says Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington DC.

To get an idea of China’s burgeoning space programme, look no further than its satellites. Starting in 1970, China launched low-quality transponders and rudimentary spy satellites capable of only the most basic tasks at an entirely unimpressive rate of one per year. By 2012, the country had surpassed the US with 19 launches in a single year. China had also sent its first taikonaut into space, conducted its first space walk and completed its first rendezvous and docking with a small space laboratory. “The manned program they are building is progressing a lot faster than the US did with theirs in the sixties,” says Richard Holdaway, Director of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Space division, one of the UK’s closest collaborators on the Chinese space programme. “They are catching up at an astonishing rate.”

“In 15 years they have gone from bit player to leading player,” says Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And they have done so on a shoestring. China’s space budget is less than one-tenth of the US one, according to a recent estimate by the Space Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in Colorado Springs.

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“They are still in a developmental stage using essentially Russian technology and knock-offs,” says Robert Bigelow, the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, a space technology company in Las Vegas.

However, on closer inspection this picture seems incomplete. Granted, as Bigelow points out, China’s Shenzhou space capsule looks nearly identical to Russia’s Soyuz capsule. And beneath Chinese spacesuits, taikonauts often wear an inner pressure suit made in Russia. And yes, Jade Rabbit looks like an updated version of Lunokhod 2, a Soviet rover that landed on the moon in 1973.

Many of these similarities stem from a deal that took place in the mid-1990s, when China purchased much of Russia’s human spaceflight technology, including Soyuz capsules, spacesuits, life support, and docking systems. However, China has made vast improvements to the original designs. For example, the Shenzhou capsule is roughly 30 per cent larger, with solar panels, advanced avionics and electronics. “China has developed what the next generation would have been,” says Leroy Chiao, a former US astronaut.

Other crucial improvements, however, are not incremental – China has leaped ahead of other countries, thanks to basic science. For example, to operate a rover successfully on the moon, Chinese engineers had to make it impervious to lunar soil, an incredibly sharp, fine-grained, and sticky substance that nearly scuttled the Apollo missions. To test rover prototypes without advice from countries with access to fake moon dust, Chinese scientists developed their own simulated lunar soil from scratch. They did it using only a tiny sample of moon rock acquired decades earlier from the US, says Yongchun Zheng, a planetary scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

China’s rocket technology has a similar tale to tell. Its Long March rockets are an original design, and quickly became more advanced than Russian rockets, which have changed very little over the years, relying primarily on kerosene, a low-power but easy-to-use fuel source. The Long March 3 – which sent the Jade Rabbit on its path to the moon – uses a more advanced hydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide fuel. “It’s something the Russians have tended to stay away from,” says McDowell. “It has more oomph but it’s harder to work with.” He refers to the Chinese success with this fuel as a “high-tech achievement”.

Satellite navigation is in the middle of a similar overhaul. China is a little less than halfway done with BeiDou, its answer to the GPS satellite navigation system. As of today, 15 navigation satellites are in orbit with plans for 20 more by 2020.

a second space lab will be in low-Earth orbit by 2015, placed there by the next-generation Long March 5 rocket, capable of lifting 600 kilograms more than the now-retired US space shuttle. A full-scale Chinese Space Station (CSS) will join it by 2020. A report published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences spells out China’s next steps, which include a crewed lunar base – a goal Holdaway considers reasonable – a human mission to Mars, and robotic planetary exploration by 2050.

For a country that has yet to set foot on lunar soil, such projections may seem unrealistic. But China’s long and persistent march is not the only reason to believe the road map: the country also possesses at least two resources no other country can compete with. The first is people. “A quarter million people are working on their space programme,” says Holdaway. And these scientists and engineers are young, says Gregory Kulacki, China expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists based in Washington DC. Echoing the idealistic, young NASA culture of the 1960s, he says, “the average age is low 30s, which is 20 years younger than other countries’ programmes.”

Another key to China’s present and future success is the unique ability – granted by one-party rule – to stick to their plans longer than the political cycles of most Western governments. “The Chinese have a long-term plan and they’re willing to devote resources to it,” says Cheng. “I don’t just mean money, I mean human resources, industrial resources, and political resources. Eventually we should expect they will surpass us.”

And even as China is busy developing its capacity in space, the abilities of existing space powers are on the wane. “It is not clear that the United States’ rate of technological improvement will continue as you look 10 to 20 year out into the future,” McDowell says. He cites budget cuts, political gridlock, and failing educational systems. Much existing US and European space infrastructure is also ageing.

To hedge its bets, ESA is now positioning itself to partner with China in human space flight. “We have currently three or four astronauts and astronaut trainers who are in language training,” says ESA’s human spaceflight director Thomas Reiter. “We are taking steps to intensify our links with the Chinese Space Agency.”

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