China has set out ambitious goals for its space program for the next five years, detailed in its latest space white paper released a few days ago. Beijing is already an established space player that has undertaken many bold missions to space, including landing a rover on the far side of the Moon (2019), bringing back lunar samples to Earth (2020), completing the home-grown Beidou global navigation system (2020), and sending an uncrewed mission to Mars (2021), which made it only the second nation to land a craft on the red planet. This is only the beginning, and China has much bigger plans.
The white paper identifies several planetary missions in the coming years. Among the major planetary exploration goals for the next five years is a mission to Jupiter and key technological research for Mars sampling and return; collecting and bringing back lunar samples from polar sides of the Moon; undertaking “a precise landing in the Moon’s polar regions and a hopping detection in lunar shadowed area”; finishing the R&D for key technologies for the Chang’e 8 mission; working with other partner countries and international organizations to establish an international lunar research station; launching asteroid probes for sampling near-earth asteroids and probing main-belt comets; and plans for boundary exploration of the solar system.
China has particularly ambitious plans for Mars – it is working toward the goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars, to be followed up with periodic visits and longer-term plans to establish a permanent base on Mars for resource extraction and other activities. Detailing such plans, Wang Xiaojun, head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, said at a space exploration meeting in Russia in June 2021 that China’s best windows to launch its Mars missions would come in 2033, 2035, 2037, 2041, and beyond.* In the run up to the crewed missions, China plans to undertake robotic missions, studying possible areas for a Chinese base as well as to develop systems that are required for resource extraction.
This will have spin-off effects in terms of other parties’ competing goals. The United States, for instance, outlined its plans for Mars in July last year, stating that it plans to test on the Moon “new tools, instruments and equipment that could be used on Mars, including human habitats, life support systems, and technologies and practices that could help us build self-sustaining outposts away from Earth.” Meanwhile, the U.S. private company SpaceX made its own announcement to say that they could be landing on Mars soon. In December 2020, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said that “he’s ‘highly confident’ SpaceX will launch people toward the Red Planet in 2026, adding that the milestone could come as early as 2024 ‘if we get lucky.’”
Over the years, China has focused a great deal on developing rockets that are capable of launching large payloads. Beijing wants to augment its capacities in this regard. China’s Long March series of rockets are being improved for “non-toxic and pollution-free launch.” China is making progress also with its reusable launch vehicles, having carried out demonstration test flights. China also plans to develop and launch a space telescope called Xuntian within the next five years.
Another aspect that was emphasized in the white paper is space environment governance, which has gained critical importance for a number of reasons. China claims that with an expanding database, its debris monitoring capabilities have become “more capable of collision warning and space event perception and response, effectively ensuring the safety of in-orbit spacecraft.”
The white paper added that in line with its commitments under the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines and the Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities, it has “completed end of life active deorbit of the Tiangong-2 and other spacecraft, making a positive contribution to mitigating space debris.”
As for the next five years, China says it will “strengthen space traffic control; improve its space debris monitoring system, cataloging database, and early warning services; conduct in-orbit maintenance of spacecraft, collision avoidance and control, and space debris mitigation, to ensure the safe, stable and orderly operation of the space system; strengthen the protection of its space activities, assets and other interests by boosting capacity in disaster backup and information protection, and increasing invulnerability and survivability.” The white paper also stated it is exploring the establishment of a near-Earth object defense system while augmenting its capacity for monitoring, cataloging, early warning and response with regard to near-Earth objects. It is unclear whether the defense system will be developed in partnership with other spacefaring states as a global good or not.
On international cooperation in the area of governance, China said that it will, through the multilateral platform of the United Nations, “actively participate in formulating international rules regarding outer space, and will work together with other countries to address the challenges in ensuring long-term sustainability of outer space activities.” In addition, it said that Beijing seeks to “cooperate in space environment governance, improve the efficiency of space crisis management and comprehensive governance, conduct dialogue with Russia, the United States and other countries as well as relevant international organizations on outer space governance” while “actively support[ing] the construction of APSCO’s space science observatory.”
On domestic space governance, the new white paper said that China will accelerate the process of developing a domestic space law including making regulations on satellite navigation, strengthening the management of satellite navigation activities, revising measures for the registration of space objects, and regulating the sharing and use of space data and the licensing of civil space launches, management of satellite frequency and orbit resources, as well as coordination and registration of resources to protect China’s rights and interests.
China is also using space as a major tool in furthering its diplomacy and national interests. Outreach in the Middle East, Africa and Pakistan in South Asia found a number of mentions in the white paper. For instance, it said that Beijing will “give priority to developing communications satellites for Pakistan and to cooperating on the construction of the Pakistan Space Centre and Egypt’s Space City.”
While China’s white paper on space is a good transparency move, the goals enshrined in the document may also make space more competitive. It is clear that the space race is well and truly under way.
*A previous version of this article stated that China has Mars missions planned for these years. Wang was merely stating which years would provide the most favorable conditions for future missions.