China wants to be a leading space power by 2045—and it’s getting there fast

May 30, 2021, 4:00 AM UTC

The world watched earlier this month as the husk of a rocket, which had carried the core module for China’s Tiangong space station into orbit, plummeted uncontrollably towards Earth. Ordinarily, rocket modules detach shortly after lift-off, and crash land into the ocean, whereas China’s detached in orbit and streaked recklessly across the sky.

The fiery re-entry earned China rebuke from officials in the U.S.

“It is clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris,” said Bill Nelson, administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Last year, a Chinese rocket made a similar untamed return to Earth and reportedly rained debris on an African village. This time, after days of anxious watching, the runaway rocket eventually crashed in the Indian Ocean. China has planned 11 more rocket launches over the next two years, as the nation races to complete its own orbiting space station.

While the likelihood of being struck by an out-of-control rocket are slim-to-nil, observers see Beijing’s apparent disregard for “responsible standards” as emblematic of a larger security threat looming behind China’s increased prowess in space: that China could turn its scientific achievements into a military advantage.

Take off

In three short decades since the founding of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), China has raced to become one of the world’s leading space-faring nations.

Last year, China became the first nation to land a lunar probe on the mythical dark side of the moon and, last week, became the second to dispatch a rover on the surface of Mars—doing so in the approximate vicinity of a U.S. rover.

“There’s a certain amount of prestige driving these sorts of missions,” says Rajeswari Rajagopalan, director of the Center for Security Strategy & Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation think tank in New Delhi, likening the geopolitical dynamic of China’s exploration to the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s.

Certainly, the U.S. sees China’s growing clout in space as a challenge to its own interests. Last week, President Joe Biden’s nominee for NASA deputy administrator, Pamela Melroy, told Senators at her confirmation hearing that “China has made their goals very clear—to take away space superiority from the United States.”

While there’s no direct security threat to China landing a rover on Mars, Rajagopalan says, the “spinoff” technology created to achieve those goals is significant. Security experts consider space technology to be inherently “dual use,” meaning such tech can be deployed for civilian or military purposes.

“China will have developed fairly sophisticated and advanced communication technologies as part of its space missions and security analysts will be watching to see how China uses those technologies in the future,” Rajagopalan says.

Crowded space

Satellites are a prime example of dual use space tech. The U.S.-developed Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system guides missiles as well as locates the Starbucks that’s nearest to your phone. But China’s communication satellites are already advancing beyond U.S. capabilities.

Last year, China’s Mencius satellite pioneered a method of transmitting information using quantum entanglement—a technique that proponents describe as “unhackable.” In 2020, China also finished deployment of its homegrown alternative to GPS, called Beidou.

“There’s indirect leverage to China having its own global positioning satellite system, beyond the obvious military applications,” says Mark Hilborne, a professor at King’s College London Defence Studies Department and the founder of the university’s Space Security Research Group.

According to Nikkei, Beidou already provides more coverage than GPS does in the capital cities of 165 countries, jeopardizing the global dominance of GPS and scoring more “soft power” for Beijing.

To an extent, just the presence of more satellites in orbit is a threat to U.S. interests. The Department of Defense tracks over 27,000 pieces of space debris whizzing across space—each piece is a risk to active satellites. A high-velocity collision could knock vital services offline.

China’s mishandling of space debris, like its discarded rocket modules, has stoked concern over how the CNSA will safely decommission its new satellites.

Critics point to a 2007 incident, in particular, in which China tested an Earth-to-orbit anti-satellite missile, hitting and destroying one of its own satellites. As of 2019, the U.S. military continued to track 3,000 pieces of space debris from that incident, each of which poses a risk to the International Space Station (ISS).

China plans to add some 13,000 low-orbit satellites in coming years, to develop an Internet service akin to SpaceX’s Starlink, which is planning capacity for 30,000 satellites.

Yet China’s growing presence in orbit might encourage Beijing to adopt more cautious practices, as space junk poses a threat to its own space assets—including the Tiangong space station. If the ISS is decommissioned as planned in 2024, the Tiangong will soon be the only active space station imperiled by orbital debris.

Space race

The race to hedge against China’s ambitions has encouraged other nations to strengthen national space programs and prompted international dialogue on how to ensure “sustainable” space exploration. Last year, for instance, the U.K. sponsored a program with the UN “to secure the continued safety and sustainability of space” and agreed to implement sustainable space guidelines devised by the UN Committee on Peaceful Used of Outer Space.

“It seems to me that more states that are active in space, the more we’ll see a democratization in how space is managed,” Hilborne says, although he notes that China has been “resistant” to engage in much international regulation.

China has its own grand ambitions for space. The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) has set a target for China to be a “world-leading” space power by 2045 and to launch an “Earth-moon economic zone” by 2050.

In March, the CNSA signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to develop an International Lunar Research Station. In February, the two nations also proposed a treaty against weaponizing space with the UN. But the U.S. and its allies refuse to join, suspecting the legislation is a trap that will protect weapons systems Russia and China have developed already.

“Multilateral negotiations [on arms control in space] have come to a complete halt for the last several years,” Rajagopalan says, adding that deteriorating relations between China and the U.S. have enhanced distrust and made it “extremely challenging to develop consensus on rules of the road.”

“That has a negative impact on everybody else,” Rajagopalan says. “Are we waiting for a major catastrophe to happen before we recognize the need to come together and build legislation?”

Our mission to make business better is fueled by readers like you. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today.