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China’s Space Program in 2023: Taking Stock

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China’s Space Program in 2023: Taking Stock

From heavy-lift reusable rockets to satellite internet, a look at China’s progress on top space priorities.

China’s Space Program in 2023: Taking Stock
Credit: Depositphotos

As we come to the end of 2023, it is an apt time to revisit China’s priorities for its space program. In President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, space infrastructure was identified as a critical component of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. Space is also integral to China’s strategic competition with the United States and a key component of its national power. 

In his speech, Xi put space achievements at the front of his list of China’s scientific progress: “We have witnessed major successes on multiple fronts, including human spaceflight, lunar and Martian exploration, deep sea and deep Earth probes, supercomputers, satellite navigation, quantum information, nuclear power technology, new energy technology, airliner manufacturing, and biomedicine. China has joined the ranks of the world’s innovators.” 

This perspective is reflected in China’s 2021 white paper on space activities, which reiterated Xi’s guidance that “to explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream… the space industry is a critical element of the overall national strategy.” Scientific innovation, including space capabilities, is seen as the key to the continued growth of China’s economic and military power. 

Within the parameters of this CCP guideline, China identified certain major priorities for its civil-military space program during 2023. These included the development of a heavy lift reusable rocket, diversified space platforms across multiple orbits, and the related faculty to construct and extend large platforms in space. China is also seeking to encourage its commercial space sector, cultivate its lunar capabilities and regulations, advance a holistic end-to-end space logistics system, and build satellite internet infrastructure as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Heavy Lift Rockets

2023 witnessed China announce the goal of a reusable version of the Long March 9 heavy lift rocket, with a capacity to launch 150 metric tons to Low Earth orbit (LEO) and 50 tons to Earth-Moon transfer orbit. This will be a major focus of China’s space program for the next seven years, with the first launch date of the three stage Long March 9 (with its first stage reusable), scheduled for 2030. 

Much of China’s space ambition hangs on the success of the Long March 9, to include its ambition to construct a 10,000-ton Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) satellite, its Mars settlement goals, and asteroid missions. 

Another rocket to watch for is the Long March 10, which will be utilized for China’s manned lunar landings. This year saw the successful test of the thrust engine of the Long March 10, which is scheduled for launch in 2027. The test engine utilized liquid oxygen as fuel with an ability to reach 130 tons of thrust, compared to 120 tons of thrust for the Long March 5. The engine of the Long March 10 will have an added 210 tons of thrust due to its added 21 engines. The Long March 10 will be able to lift 27 tons to Earth-Moon transfer orbit. China’s lunar lander weighs about 26 tons consisting of a lunar lander module and a propellant module, designed to carry two taikonauts to the lunar surface and lift them back to lunar orbit. 

Constructing Large Platforms in Space

2023 also witnessed major policy developments in regard to China’s ability to construct large platforms in space. This included plans to extend the Tiangong space station in the future with a node cabin, similar to the Tianhe, with multiple docking ports. According to China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the expanded Tiangong space station will carry out space applications like stem cell and regenerative medicine, high precision time frequency, and quantum precision measurement. 

Chinese plans in 2023 also included the development of SBSP satellites, across different space institutions involved in the project. The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) is now focused on developing the base technologies for the construction of a large SBSP satellite, and laser and microwave power beaming. 

Hou Xinbin, a researcher at CAST and member of the Committee of Space Solar Power of the Chinese Society of Astronautics, specified that the next step will be to place these satellites in space and experiment with microwave and laser beaming to ground stations on Earth, or develop a capacity that is even more beneficial: laser beaming realized between two satellites in orbit. For instance, Hou specified that “realizing laser power transmissions is meaningful in terms of space programs. For instance, a solar power satellite with laser transmission capability can operate in a lunar polar orbit and provide power supply to exploration programs in polar regions on the moon.” 

As per Li Ming, director of the Chinese Society of Astronautics Space Solar Power Commission, “In the future, we are looking at building a space solar power station, which according to the current plan, will possess power capability of 1 billion watts – or the gigawatt level, and the mega project will be operational for commercial use… the future space power station will likely have a scale of more than 10,000 tons.” Li added, “[T]o reach that goal, China needs to grasp the capability of wireless power transmission technology, which is a must and the greatest challenge in the process.”

China is also experimenting on constructing a large orbital platform in space populated by hundreds of CubeSats, guided by artificial intelligence (AI) decision making, to defend against adversary satellites, clear debris, and conduct in-orbit refueling and maintenance. According to the concept paper and simulation-based modeling, such a large orbital platform would offer China both economic and military advantages. The Chinese scientists involved in the project asserted that AI-based decision making on determining threat and/or opportunity, or hunting down adversary satellites, was superior in a space order of battle or for debris removal. 

Regulation and the Moon

China has announced plans to send humans to the Moon by 2030 and built a permanent research station by 2036 on the Lunar South Pole. In 2024, China is launching the Chang’e 6 to the lunar far side to collect samples. 

In support of China’s lunar missions, China planned on establishing the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) Cooperation Organization to establish the regulatory framework for its ILRS partnerships, which include Russia, Pakistan, South Africa, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Egypt. 

Some of the goals of the ILRS are in-situ lunar resource utilization, cislunar space environment assessment, lunar chemistry, and lunar topography. The ILRS would consist of a cislunar transportation facility, and related lunar ground facilities, both robotic and human enabled. 

By 2031, China hopes to have the regulatory regime in place, in collaboration with its partner nations. By 2036, the ILRS is planned to be complete and running, conducting an entire cislunar development phase. 

Space Logistics End-to-End Capacity

China is developing an end-to-end space logistic capability that has implications for both civilian and military power projection. Space is viewed as an enabler for Chinese power projection capabilities. 

This year, China achieved an enormous strategic advantage over the United States in what is called Tactically Responsive Space Launch (TRSL). This includes the entirety of space logistics: rocket launch (both liquid propelled and solid propelled rockets); precision, navigation, and timing (PNT); intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and large satellite constellations. TRSL is particularly vital in a scenario of conflict where damaged or defunct satellites must be rapidly replaced. 

China has the ability to place satellites in different orbits, ranging from LEO to cislunar space, as is evidenced by its LEO, GEO and Queqiao communications satellite in Earth Moon Lagrange Point (L2). The second relay satellite is to be launched next year in preparation for China’s Chang’e 6 lunar sample return mission. 

China’s fleet of solid propelled rockets allows the country to launch quickly without having to rely on the cumbersome launch platform that liquid propelled rockets require. Solid fueled rockets like Long March 11 can be launched from mobile transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) or from sea-based platforms, and very quickly. In fact, this has been China’s focus, to build diversified launch platforms, whereas the U.S. and its private sector space companies are focused on building large liquid fueled rockets. 

For China, this is a strategic choice to build a kind of resiliency. Beijing is not only dedicated to building large liquid fueled rockets – which have high payload capacity and are efficient, but require an intricate process of ground support – but also purposefully developing solid fueled rockets that do not require such an elaborate ground support structure. China has concentrated on building a diverse fleet of rockets that can be easily launched, especially solid fueled rockets that offer enormous flexibility and adaptability. The basic advantage of such a capability is that during conflict, if a few satellites are damaged, a country needs to own a quick launch capability to replace those few damaged satellites. 

Added to this are PNT, ISR and satellite internet, all of which are proving vital during the Russia-Ukraine conflict. China announced that it has completed a high-orbit satellite internet system (36, 000 km) consisting of its satellites ChinaSat 16, 19 and 26, that offers coverage throughout China, parts of Russia, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, India, the Indian Ocean, and for member nations of the BRI. It is envisioned that by 2025, this high-orbit satellite internet will exceed 500 Gbps. Huawei has already launched a 5G smartphone that utilized this internet for its satellite calling features

Chinese experts claim that high-orbit based satellite internet requires fewer satellites, compared to say, Starlink, for wider area coverage. China is developing a LEO-based large scale satellite constellation as well. 

Another interesting development in 2023 is the presentation of findings of a three-year feasibility study project (2021-2023) by Wang Wei, a leading scientist with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). The project aims to build an end-to-end space logistics system spanning the entirety of the solar system by 2100, by utilizing key strategically positioned gravitationally balanced regions in space. This would include capacities to extract water ice from the Moon, mining resources from near earth asteroids, Mars, the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter. 

The vision is to enable a wide-scale space infrastructure that would facilitate extraterrestrial mining and processing. Wang wrote that “just like the miracles created in the great age of navigation, a ‘great space age’ featuring the use of space resources will … create the next miracles in human history and bring new prosperity to our civilization…[this] has the potential to transform the global space economy and elevate China’s standing in the world of space exploration.” 

Commercial Space 

China’s commercial space companies are starting to enter the demonstration phases of their space systems. In November, iSpace tested its reusable Hyperbola 2 with a 50 second or so hop test. The thrust engine of the Hyperbola 2 runs on methane and liquid oxygen. 

In a statement, iSpace specified that the “SQX-2Y (Hyperbola 2) reached an altitude of 178.4 m before landing with a precision of 1.68 m, flying at a speed of 0.025m/s with a pitch angle of 0.18 deg. and a roll angle of 4 deg. The entire process, which took place on Nov. 2 at China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, lasted 50.82 seconds.” The company saw this test as a breakthrough in China’s commercial reusable launch technology. 

Landspace, another Chinese commercial space company, successfully launched the world’s first methane liquid oxygen rocket called the Zhuque-2. 

Beijing Tianbing Technology, another Chinese space startup, launched a kerosene propelled rocket, called the Tianlong 2, becoming the first such company to launch a liquid propelled rocket to orbit.  

Doctrinal Innovation and Strategic Advantages for China

China’s space activities have gotten a boost since Xi instructed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to practice civil-military integration and rapidly progress China’s space capabilities. In 2015, Xi instructed the PLA to develop a dedicated service for space, innovate doctrinal thinking and training that viewed space as a force multiplier, and locate China’s civilian and commercial space program as part of its national strategy to greatness. 

Having a resilient diverse space ecosystem, multiple launch platforms, a heavy lift rocket, and an ability to build large platforms in space offers China enormous strategic advantages going forward. I have argued in several pieces (here, here, and here) what that strategic advantage in space would look like. Looking at China’s 2023 space developments and the planned missions ahead, the country is working toward building the multi-domain advantage that space technology brings to its grand strategic vision.