The Chinese space laboratory Tiangong-1 launched successfully this weekend, in a major step forward for China’s aerospace ambitions. The small installation will allow China to test prototype docking technology that will be used in a planned space station, creating a mission that will allow China to gain more experience with advanced satellite technology. The launch is a good PR moment for the 62nd anniversary of the People’s Republic (and has produced some awfully old-fashioned patriotic news), and a reminder of the technical ability of one of China’s most innovative organizations – the People’s Liberation Army.
As a report from the Rand Corporation found in July, China’s space programme has produced major results for Chinese generals concerned about the ‘space front’ in a hypothetical war with the United States. The programme is headed by military officers and belongs to the Chinese military. In addition to successfully shooting down a satellite, demonstrating an ability to interfere with US communications in the event of conflict, China has made substantial progress toward building networks of communications, weather, and surveillance satellites, as well as a GPS-like system called Compass, which hasn’t reached worldwide coverage yet. Still, Chinese satellites have major problems with reliability, and few will prove commercially viable – there’s little demand for a GPS system that has system failures and only works in Asia and the Pacific – but these systems provide the Chinese military with services they would prefer not to rely on the United States for.
Lacking satellite monitoring bases around the world, China is certainly behind the United States, with some systems covering only Asia and others, like surveillance photography, probably being downloaded only after a substantial delay as the connection can be made only when the satellite is over China. However, newer models of Chinese satellite are capable of serving as relay stations, and as the network is filled in China may get access to surveillance photography in real time.
In contrast to satellites, China has an excellent record with rocket launches, having fired an average of about one thing into orbit a month since 1996, and – unlike many fields of ‘Chinese innovation’ – space is almost entirely homegrown. While it’s also a source of national pride, space is for China’s leaders a sea it may be able to compete in sooner than the Pacific.