China Power | Security | East Asia

What’s Ahead for China’s Space Program in 2021?

From a Mars mission to the beginnings of a new space station, this year will be full of milestones for China.

By Namrata Goswami for
What’s Ahead for China’s Space Program in 2021?

In this July 17, 2020, file photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Long March-5 rocket is seen at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China’s Hainan Province.

Credit: Zhang Gaoxiang/Xinhua via AP, File

2021 promises to be an exciting year for China in space. On February 10, China’s independent Mars mission, the Tianwen 1, will attempt to enter Martian orbit. Once it succeeds in entering Martian orbit, Tianwen 1 will spend around two to three months surveying Mars for a suitable landing site. After landing, a rover will be released to study Mars’ surface. If China succeeds in entering Mars orbit, landing, and sending out a rover on its surface, it would have caught up with U.S. Mars capability in a single attempt.

The challenges to a successful Mars mission are several. Unlike the moon, where China has demonstrated numerous successful robotic soft landings, Mars landings are a challenge. For one thing, Mars has an atmosphere. This means that parachutes will have to be used to slow down the descent, something Chinese space engineers are not familiar with. Mars’ gravity has to be accounted for as well. The distance between Earth and Mars (up to 400 million kilometers) requires resolving the communication challenge and time lag. Two relay satellites in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO), Tianlian I-02 and Tianlian II-01 are being prepared to meet this unique challenge. Several orbital corrections have been conducted since the Mars mission launched in July last year.

Geng Yan, a space official with the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), stated that “We only have a limited understanding of Mars. There are still many uncertainties about the environment and great risks… it’s immensely difficult to simulate the environment of Mars.”

The success of the Mars mission has strategic implications for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 2021 is the 100th year anniversary of the CCP, which was founded 1921. Xi aims to utilize China’s Mars success to project the prowess and scientific temper of the party, as an engine of growth, stability, and future innovation. The contribution of the space economy to achieving Xi’s goal of reacing “socialist modernization” by 2035 is highlighted in the CCP’s planning schedule. The mission to Mars is a highpoint of Xi’s 2025 “Made in China” goals.

So critical is the success of this Mars mission to China’s global power status that the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences started constructing Asia’s largest steerable radio telescope (70-meter-diameter antenna) in 2018, to receive data from the Mars mission. The deputy chief designer of China’s first Mars exploration mission, Li Chunlai specified that the steerable telescope with help lay the foundation for future missions like planetary and asteroid probes slotted for 2029. The Mars mission is the start of China’s planetary exploration missions, with subsequent missions planned for Jupiter (2029) and Venus (2030). If China succeeds in its first Mars mission, the second Mars sample return mission is planned for 2030.

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Another critical space mission for China in 2021 is the launch of its permanent space station. With decades of planning and launch experience with the temporary space labs, Tiangong 1 and 2, and human and cargo dockings, China has been incrementally planning for the 2021 Tiangong space station lift and construction. The successful launch of the Long March 5B rocket in mid-2020 has made it possible to meet deadlines of 2022 set for China’s permanent space station.

The Tiangong space station is to be located and operate in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), 350 km to 435 km above Earth, for an initial period of 10 years. The station is built to support three astronauts for extended stays, and up to six astronauts during crew replacement operations. According to Xinhua’s summary of comments from Zhu Guangchen, deputy chief designer of the space station from the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), “If China’s Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 space labs are like one-bedroom apartments, the space station is equivalent to an apartment with three bedrooms, a living room, a dining room and a storage room.”

Tianhe will be the main core module, along with two lab capsules, Wentian and Mengtian. The transportation infrastructure will include about 12 launches on the Long March 5B, with the first launch scheduled for this year lifting the core module, followed by the two labs and a caliber optical telescope named Xuntian. China’s permanent space station (about the size of Russia’s Mir station) is scheduled to be completed and functioning by end of 2022. The Long March 2F and the Shenzhou spacecraft will transport the crew, while the Long March 7 and the Tianzhou cargo spacecraft will transport supplies and propellant.

As per Li Ming, senior vice president of CAST, the construction of China’s permanent space station is part of an incremental strategy to gather experience living in space, to be followed by the construction of space based solar power (SBSP) satellites and a lunar base by 2036. 2021 is a critical year for SBSP too as China aims to demonstrate its first wireless beaming potential on an experimental site in Chongqing, China.

The successful completion of China’s permanent space station would provide an alternative to the International Space Station (ISS) especially given the uncertainty of funding for the ISS beyond 2025. This means China will be attracting international partners to its space station. Already, given this uncertainty around the ISS, Jan Wörner, the director general of the European Space Agency (ESA) has expressed a strategic need to cooperate with China in space especially on its space station and missions to the moon and Mars. The increase in Chinese space capacity, budget, and its growing private space sector implies that regions like Europe and Africa will look to strategically cooperate with moving forward, thereby growing China’s geopolitical and astropolitical influence exactly as Xi hopes for.

China’s space prowess demonstration capacity, power projection, technological advancement, and influence building have been so successful that even some of U.S. President Joe Biden’s advisers are aspiring to cooperate with China in space. Otherwise, the risk of being left out of a Chinese-led space order is imminent. Pam Melroy, a former NASA astronaut who served on Biden’s NASA transition team, stated that “Trying to exclude them I think is a failing strategy…it’s very important that we engage.”

With power comes influence, and Chinese strategists understands this well. Now the U.S. is concerned that its allies and partners are looking to join a Chinese-led space order. This has always been the intention of China’s space program: to build alternative capacity, norms, and institutions that are led by China. This issue was raised by former NASA administrator Charles Bolden: “[M]y concern is not that China is going places, but that our partners are going to China…we seem to be satisfied to allow them to go off and build their own space station… That’s short sighted… It’s not the mark of a good leader.”

There is an erroneous strategic assumption here that China would want to join a U.S.-led space order. As per Xi’s space dream, China aims to become the foremost space power by 2045, and lead by 2049, in time for celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the People’s Republic Nowhere in the strategic calculus of Xi is there a call to join a U.S.-led space order. Chinese space scientists, engineers, and strategic thinkers call for and support international space cooperation and collaboration, but with China as the lead space power. This has included signing Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) with several global institutions and countries, especially those included in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Unlike the erstwhile Soviet Union, China is deeply intertwined with the global economy, draws from a globally educated talent pool of engineers and scientists, and is the only major economy to register growth in 2020 despite COVID-19. China is forecasted to become the number one global economy by 2050. Space will form a critical component of China’s future budget allocation and spending given its growing importance in overall Chinese civilian and military infrastructure. The foundation for space development and utilization has been laid by designating space and interconnected systems like 5G, AI, satellite-based internet, as “critical infrastructure” by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission in April 2020.

2021 will prove to be eventful for China’s growing new space sector as well. Critical to note is that companies like Linkspace have successfully demonstrated vertical takeoff and landing, key technology developments for reusable rockets. Ispace or Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Technology Ltd, the only Chinese private space company thus far to successfully launch its rocket, Hyperbola 1, to orbit, plans to launch a reusable Hyperbola 2 rocket in 2021. While ispace is no SpaceX, the development of reusable rockets is part of China’s national space program. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) aspires to demonstrate China’s first state-funded reusable rocket by 2025, with a capacity for autonomous learning and decision making; a capability being worked on separately by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). In September 2020, China launched a reusable experimental spacecraft on its Long March 2F rocket, which landed back at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center after a two-day orbit operation. China is scheduled to carry out 40 space launches in 2021.

China’s space goals and accomplishments are critical components toward building its comprehensive national power, as recent legislative changes highlight. On January 1, 2021, a revision to China’s National Defense Law took effect. Adopted by the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) on December 26, 2020, the revised National Defense Law highlights China’s national defense strategy as a “whole of people” cause. The revised law expands the power of China’s military to mobilize and coordinate both state owned and private enterprises to contribute to research in fields like electromagnetics, cybersecurity, and space. The expanded law aspires to increase China’s ability to not only secure national sovereignty, including in areas like Hong Kong and Taiwan, but advance its reach overseas and outer space. As per the new defense law, “all national organizations, armed forces, political parties, civil groups, enterprises, social organizations, and other organizations should support and take part in the development of national defense, fulfill national defense duties and carry out national defense missions according to the law.”

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More critically, every activity including China’s space program, both state-owned and private efforts, are required to adhere to Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, with space being identified as a new security domain. It is critical to keep this larger strategic and ideological framing in mind as we analyze and understand China’s long term space goals. 2021 will prove to be a key year for the furtherance of China’s space capacity building toward achieving its long-term goals of permanent presence in space.

Dr. Namrata Goswami is a senior analyst and author specializing in space policy, geopolitics and great powers. She is co-author of the book Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space (2020, Lexington Press).