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China Space News Update - Issue #5

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones
Updates, context and reports on China’s growing space activities.

A review of the first half of 2021
And we’re back. 2021 is proving to be phsan immense year in terms of activity and developments in the Chinese space industry. Here’s a quick look back at the action so far, partly to help making sense of things a bit easier down the line.
1) Success for first interplanetary mission
Zhurong rover poses for a snap with its landing platform in June 2021. Credit: CNSA/PEC
Zhurong rover poses for a snap with its landing platform in June 2021. Credit: CNSA/PEC
China’s first independent interplanetary mission has been wildly successful, initially with Tianwen-1 entering orbit around Mars in February, and then nailing the Zhurong rover landing attempt in May after mapping out the targeted landing area.
Zhurong has since returned images, sounds, a iconic selfie, and has so far travelled over a kilometer south seeking science data. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated China, but also used the landing to warn Congress of competition China poses.
2) International Lunar Research Station
China and Russia in March signed a memorandum of understanding on forming the “International Lunar Research Station” (ILRS), before presenting a roadmap for the collaborative lunar outpost in June. The pair are combining existing planned missions into a broader, three-phase project to establish a sustainable robotic and eventually crewed base on the surface of the Moon into the 2030s. The plan is an alternative to NASA’s Artemis program, with the split reflecting current terrestrial geopolitics.
While China can be seen to be growing its space industry and accumulating the capabilities required for human lunar landings (rockets, spacecraft and now a lander) and more, observers are more skeptical of Russia’s role, given dwindling resources and expertise. Some also sense a political dimension to Russia’s intentions.
A render of the ILRS presented in June. Credit: CNSA/ROSCOSMOS
A render of the ILRS presented in June. Credit: CNSA/ROSCOSMOS
3) Satellite Internet national project
A Chinese megaconstellation: In May the Chinese government created a company dedicated to creating and operating a 13,000-satellite broadband constellation. The China Satellite Network Group will apparently operate independently from China’s state-owned space contractors CASC and CASIC, which could mean opportunities also for private firms in the country’s nascent commercial sector. 
The plan means that previous broadband constellation plans from CASC, CASIC and private firms are to be scrapped or merged in some fashion. China’s NDRC added “satellite internet” to a list of “new infrastructures” in April 2020. The project adds to concerns over space debris as well as poses geopolitical questions regarding global and regional leadership and Internet governance.
4) China's space station takes off
Shenzhou-12 commander Nie Haisheng during the mission's second spacewalk, August 20, 2021. Credit: CASC/BACC
Shenzhou-12 commander Nie Haisheng during the mission's second spacewalk, August 20, 2021. Credit: CASC/BACC
Plans laid down in 1992 are now finally taking flight, with Tianhe, the core module for the Chinese Space Station, launching in May and now hosting its first crew. The 22.5-metric tonne Tianhe will be joined in orbit by experiment modules Mengtian and Wentian in 2022, after which crews of three astronauts will spend six months at a time onboard, conducting experiments and more.
The Shenzhou-12 crew have completed two spacewalks and are expected to return to Earth in mid-September. The Tianzhou-3 cargo spacecraft is set to launch days later to supply the Shenzhou-13 mission planned for October.
5) Long March 5B reentry
The success of the Tianhe launch was tempered somewhat by the uncontrolled reentry of the first stage of the Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket which put Tianhe in orbit. The huge first stage reached orbital velocity instead of the standard practice of falling predictably downrange into a pre-planned area. The event became an international event, with the decaying orbit tracked carefully and a sense of alarm disproportionate to the (negligible) danger. Global concern was first met with silence from China, partly due to a national holiday, but then gave way to acrimony. While the 5B was being described as being one of the largest uncontrolled reentries in terms of mass and avoidable, China conversely claimed this is standard for an “upper stage”. Communication would be key. Information such as design decisions and range considerations for launch from Wenchang would bring clarity, as would the US and China being able to communicate directly. China’s human spaceflight agency has since published orbital data for all space station-related missions.
6) Super heavy-lift rockets for the Moon
China is developing two types of super-heavy launch vehicles for future lunar projects: the Long March 9 and the CZ-5 DY. The former is a Saturn V-class, expendable rocket for lifting infrastructure (~140 tons to LEO, 50 tons to TLI), and the other a three-core rocket combining and building on tech from the Long March 5 for launching crew.
According to veteran Long March rocket designer Long Lehao two launches of the CZ-5 DY could put two astronauts on the Moon for a duration of 6 hours, possibly by 2030. Long also in June presented a design for a reusable version of the Long March 9 which could make megaprojects like space-based solar power possible.
7) Space plans to 2025
CNSA in June presented key development plans for the 14th five-year plan period (2021-25).
Exploration goals: 
Andrew Jones
CNSA today presented key development plans for the 14th five-year plan period (2021-25). Exploration goals:
Near-Earth asteroid sample-return mission ~2025
Chang'e-6 & Chang'e-7 to lunar south pole
After 2025: Chang'e-8, Mars sample return, Jupiter orbiter/planetary flyby
Technology priorities:
Planetary and lunar exploration, human spaceflight (CSS), heavy-lift launchers, reusable space transportation systems, and national “satellite internet” constellation, continued development of national civil space infrastructure and supporting ground facilities; enhance capabilities in Earth observation, satellite communications and broadcasting, and navigation and positioning (Beidou).
  • A second Sino-Italian seismic satellite (Zhangheng-2)China-France SVOM astronomical X-ray space telescope
  • A follow-up to China-Brazil CBERS Earth Observation satellite
  • promote construction of “Belt and Road” spatial information corridor
  • BRICS remote sensing satellite constellation
  • Jointly respond to common challenges inc. global climate change and near-Earth asteroid impact risk
  • The ILRS
8) Commercial developments
The two Chinese commercial launches this year–both by iSpace–have failed, while Expace’s Kuaizhou rockets remain grounded (though not for long). But major developments have taken place, including continued (if slightly lagging) investment and issuance of new guidelines to further support the sector, a number of cities establishing policies to support local space industry, and a probable new commercial launch center near Ningbo.
Notably a call for proposals for economical cargo transportation proposals in January issued by the China Manned Space Agency has made clear to companies they could earn future contracts to deliver supplies to and experiments from the Chinese Space Station. NASA’s commercial cargo initiatives helped SpaceX in its early days and could be an important driver for private firms in China. Commercial crew is no doubt being considered.
9) Chang'e-5 samples
Portions of the 1,731 grams of fresh lunar samples collected from Oceanus Procellarum in December 2020 are now being distributed to domestic institutions for analysis and international scientists will soon get their turn. An article submitted to Nature but not yet approved puts the age of the samples at 2.0 billion years; much younger than the Apollo samples, but older than predictions of ~1.3 Ga.
Meanwhile, the Chang'e-5 orbiter continued on to Sun-Earth L1, arriving in March, but is currently on its way back to the Moon with its next target unknown.
Andrew Jones
A look at some of the Chang'e-5 lunar samples and their handling [NAOC]
10) Lots of launches (and many more to come)
Main space contractor CASC outlined plans for 40+ launches in 2021, and is on track for a national record after the first half of the year. CASC succeeded with 18/18 missions, including the launch of Tianhe, successful return-to-flight of the Long March 7A, Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft and Shenzhou-12. The sole failure came from iSpace.
H2 is expected to see Tianzhou-3, Shenzhou-13 and the debut of the Long March 6A among others. In the commercial sphere, a first flight by CAS Space, Ceres-1 Y2 from Galactic Energy and Kuaizhou solid rockets, making for an even busier second half of the year.
1) 19.1 Tiantong-1 (03) CZ-3B XSLC
2) 29.1  Yaogan-31 (02) CZ-4C JSLC
3) 01.2  6 unknown/uncf Hyperbola-1 JSLC (failure)
4) 04.2  TJSW-6 CZ-3B XSLC
5) 24.2  Yaogan-31 (03) CZ-4C JSLC
6) 11.3  Shiyan-9 CZ-7A WSLC
7) 13.3  Yaogan-31 (04) CZ-4C JSLC
8) 30.3  Gaofen-12 (02) CZ-4C JSLC
9) 08.04 Shiyan-6 (03) CZ-4B TSLC
10) 27.04 Qilu-1, NEO-1, +4 CZ-6 TSLC
11) 29.04 Tianhe CZ-5B WSLC
12) 30.04 Yaogan-34 CZ-4C JSLC
13) 06.05 Yaogan-30 (08)CZ-2C XSLC
14) 19.05 Haiyang-2D CZ-4B JSLC
15) 29.05 Tianzhou-2 CZ-7 WSLC
16) 02.06 Fengyun-4B CZ-3B XLSC
17) 11.06 Beijing-3, YW-1, + CZ-2D TSLC
18) 17.06 Shenzhou-12 CZ-2F JSLC
19) 18.06 Yaogan-30 (09) CZ-2C XSLC
Thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to getting back to regular updates. Please feel free to subscribe and get in touch.
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Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones @AJ_FI

A weekly roundup of developments in the nebulous but energetic Chinese space sector. Created by freelance space reporter and correspondent Andrew Jones.

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