Looking East: the rise of the Chinese Space Programme

Melanie Davies looks back at ancient Chinese rocketry and delves into the impressive emergence of the space industry in China

Some might argue that the birth of the space age can be traced back to 3rd century China when the word ‘rocket’ first appeared during the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280). In 228 the Wei State defended Chencang (now in Shannxi Province) against marauding Shu troops. The Wei general, Hao Zhao, is reported to have used ‘fire arrows’ against the invaders. These fiery projectiles were used as weapons and consisted of flammable material attached to the end of an arrow. The Chinese word for fire arrow, huojian, literally translates as ‘rocket’.

Illustration of Chinese rockets during an attack on the Mongols
Illustration of Chinese rockets during an attack on the Mongols in 1232

Fast forward to the late 10th century Song Dynasty (960-1279) and gunpowder was used for the first time to propel rockets. This ancient form of missile incorporated a paper or bamboo tube, gunpowder, an arrowhead, and feathers to keep it on course. When the gunpowder was lit, hot gas was ejected at high speed from the open end of the tube; this backward force equalled the force pushing the rocket forward (Newton’s Third Rule of Motion). Sounds familiar? It’s the same process used today to launch China’s new generation of rockets, except now they use liquid oxygen and kerosene as core stage, plus liquid booster propellant and liquid hydrogen in the upper stages.

The Huolongjing or ‘Fire Dragon Manual’ from the early 14th century describes the first example of a multistage rocket: the huo long chu shui, literally ‘fire dragon issuing from the water’ used by the Chinese navy. This was a two-stage rocket with boosters that automatically ignited a number of smaller rocket arrows. Military historians see the Exocet missile as a direct descendent of the huo long chu shui.

The modern day rocket programme of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – Chang Zheng, or Long March – was named after the long march of Chinese communist history. Their first foray into space was with the Long March 1 (LM-1) rocket which launched the Dongfanghong (The East is Red) satellite – or DFH-1 – into orbit in April 1970. This brought China squarely into the modern space age, making it the fifth nation to achieve independent launch capability. 

Long March-2F carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft taken in June 2012
The Long March-2F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft in June 2012

DFH-1 carried a radio transmitter which broadcast a song, bearing the same name as the satellite, during its 20-day orbit. This was effectively a pathfinder mission, intended to test new technology. Its primary objective was to make measurements of Earth’s ionosphere and atmosphere.

Chairman Mao Zedong was a keen supporter of manned spaceflight and, in 1970, approved a programme that would send the first Chinese astronauts – taikonauts – into space. But in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping rose to power. Deng, intent on downgrading Mao’s lasting authority, cancelled the manned spaceflight programme in favour of practical space applications. Under Deng’s leadership, Beijing’s satellite programme took off, with the first telecoms satellite being launched in 1984.

1960s propaganda poster for the Chine Space Programme
1960s propaganda poster for the Chine Space Programme

With the launch of two proof of technology test satellites, the PRC began a new phase of satellite communication with DFH-2 during the latter part of the 20th century. The programme included a series of geosynchronous communication satellites, known as ChinaSats, developed at the Chinese Academy of Space Technology. Chinese officials saw an opportunity to enhance the communications infrastructure for both military and civilian use. DFH-2 provided long distance telephony, together with satellite television, linking developed Eastern China with inaccessible regions in the West. Today, satellite services include airborne, maritime and emergency communications, internet access, and distance learning, in addition to telecoms, remote sensing, meteorology, and navigation.

The Long March rocket family has had a chequered history. Early success was followed by expansion into the international launch market at the behest of Deng Xiaoping. After the Challenger disaster in 1986, China picked up some of the commercial backlog and in September 1988 President Ronald Reagan approved the launch of US satellites onboard Chinese rockets. The first non-Chinese payload, AsiaSat 1, was launched on an LM-3 in April 1990 from China’s spaceport near Xichang in Sichuan province.

In the latter part of the 1990s, a series of major setbacks occurred with the LM-2E and LM-3. This was followed by a controversy over the unauthorised sharing of information that may have improved the design of Chinese rockets and ballistic missiles. The result was a US embargo on Chinese launches and in 1998, the US State Department stopped all satellite export licenses for Chinese launch vehicles.

A Long March rocket at takeoff
A Long March rocket at takeoff

From 1996, after the withdrawal of the problematic LM-2E and retirement of LM-3, the Long March rocket programme was back on track. Since then, Long March rockets have successfully launched the first Chinese astronaut into space (2003); launched the pioneering Chang’e lunar orbiting spacecraft (2007); and the first Chinese data relay satellite (2008). They have subsequently maintained an outstanding reputation for reliability. And since 2010, Long March have been responsible for around 25% of all launches globally, sending more than 400 spacecraft into space.

China’s lunar exploration programme, Chang’e, is named after a Chinese Moon Goddess accompanied by a Jade Rabbit. Chang’e, operated by the China National Space Administration (CNSA), is a series of missions which includes robotic landers, rovers, orbiters, and a sample return expedition. It will act as a new research platform for scientists around the world; collaborations with countries including The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia are already underway. 

The programme has distinct phases, each testing new technologies and paving the way for future exploration. Phase 1 kicked off in October 2007 with the launch of the Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter from Xichang. It scanned the entire Moon, producing a 3D map in extraordinary detail – designed to assist in future soft landings on the lunar surface. The probe also mapped mineral distribution and abundance, assessing potential resources. An advocate of the programme, geologist and chemical cosmologist, Ouyang Ziyuan, has promoted the exploitation of known lunar reserves, as well as helium-3: an ideal fuel for nuclear power.

It was followed by a second orbiter, Chang’e 2, in October 2010: a multi-tasking robotic satellite which, after carrying out further mapping, left lunar orbit and set course for the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point in order to test China’s telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C) network. In December 2012, once this testing was complete, it paid a visit to asteroid 4179 Toutatis, before heading off into deep space to perform extended testing of the TT&C network.

Phase 2 is ongoing and includes landers and rovers. It started with the launch of Chang’e 3 in December 2013, landing at Mare Imbrium 12 days after launch. This ended a 37-year period of exploration stagnation on the lunar surface and placed China fair and square on its intended path as a major player in the modern space age. 

Chang’e 3’s passenger was a lunar rover called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit. It had an expected operational lifespan of three months, during which time its objectives were to conduct ultraviolet observations of galaxies, active galactic nuclei, variable stars, binaries, novae, quasars, and blazars, as well as the structure and dynamics of the Earth’s plasmasphere. Yutu became immobile 42 days after setting out, but continued to collect valuable data until its demise in July 2016 – 1764 days after deployment – setting a new record for continuous operation of a lunar rover.

Change-3 on the surface of the Moon with the Yutu rover
Change-3 on the surface of the Moon with the Yutu rover

Phase 3, launched in 2019, is a sample-return mission. Chang’e 5 will build on the success of Chang’e 3 and will be capable of collecting up to 2 kg of lunar samples and returning them to Earth.

In May 2018 the CNSA launched a relay satellite named Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, to set up a communication link ahead of the planned Chang’e 4 mission to the far side of the Moon, expected to launch at the end of 2018. “The launch is a key step for China to realise its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the Moon,” commented Zhang Lihua, Manager of the relay satellite project. After a 24-day journey, Queqiao successfully entered a halo orbit around the L2 Lagrangian point, about 455,000 km from Earth. It is the world’s first communication satellite operating in that orbit. “We designed an orbit around the … L2 point where the relay satellite will be able to ‘see’ both the Earth and the far side of the Moon,” said Bao Weimin, director of the Science and Technology Commission at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC).

Chang’e 4, which marks the fourth phase of the lunar exploration programme, made a successful soft landing at the Moon’s South Pole‐Aitken basin in January 2019. The scientific instruments of this far-side mission will analyse both the surface and the subsurface of this region. “After fulfilling the three steps of its lunar probe programme – orbiting, landing and returning – China will further explore the Moon, including landing and probing the polar regions,” said Tian Yulong, CNSA secretary general. China also has plans for a manned Moon mission, possibly as soon as 2025.

The Moon and Earth imaged by instruments onboard Chang-5
The Moon and Earth imaged using instruments onboard Chang-5

Having been excluded from the International Space Station (ISS) due to US opposition, the PRC launched a prototype space station, Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace-1) in September 2011. This pioneering space lab orbited Earth for 6.5 years until its expiration in April 2018. In this time, it tested technologies in rendezvous and docking, and conducted space environment exploration and remote sensing. After the success of its primary four-year mission, Tiangong-1 had a two-year mission extension, during which it undertook further experiments on space technologies.

The crew of Shenzhou-9 inside their capsule
The crew of Shenzhou-9 inside their capsule

Nine months after launch, the first astronauts arrived at Tiangong-1, transported by Shenzhou-9. The Shenzhou (Divine Ship) spacecraft are fundamental to China’s manned space programme. They use Russian Soyuz technology, but are larger, making them a little less cramped than their Russian counterparts. The crew performed both automated and manual docking procedures, and among the crew was the first Chinese woman in space, Liu Yang. A further three astronauts arrived in Shenzhou-10 a year later; they performed rigorous testing of environmental control and the lab module.

Tiangog-1 - China's first orbital space station
Tiangog-1 – China’s first orbital space station

Tiangong-2 launched in September 2016 as a testbed for new technologies and to enhance China’s orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. Its inaugural crew arrived in October 2016, remaining onboard for 30 days, exceeding the duration of the prototype space lab’s crew by 18 days. They took part in experiments on the effects of weightlessness and, rather more impressively, released an accompanying satellite to carry out near-distance flyby observations.

“Tiangong-2 is currently operating in a near-circular orbit with an average height of about 400 km. The temperature and pressure of the experimental cabin all meet the working requirements,” said Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, at a briefing. “It will conduct compressor life tests and space science application tests in the future,” Lin added. This important research is needed to build a permanently staffed ‘large modular space station’, with the first module, Tianhe, planned for launch by 2020. 

Artist's impression of a Shenzhou spacecraft docking with the Tiangong Space Station
Artist’s impression of a Shenzhou spacecraft docking with the Tiangong Space Station

Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s human spaceflight programme said Tianhe (Harmony of the Heavens) would launch around 2020, assuming a successful LM-5B test flight. It will be joined by two science modules by around 2022 and, later, by a co-orbiting Hubble-class ‘optical module’ which could dock for maintenance and repairs. The overall size will be comparable with the Russian Mir space station – about 1/5 the size of the ISS.

CASTC announced their roadmap for 2017-2047 in an official policy proposal at the end of 2016. Keen to be accepted as a serious player in international space pursuits, the CASTC’s roadmap included many aspiring goals. “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly,” said an official from CNSA.

In 2020 the PRC intends to modernise its Long March family with the introduction of LM-8, as well as providing multiple commercial launch services to its growing portfolio of clients. In the same year, Beijing is planning to send its first interplanetary probe to Mars; intended to orbit, land and put a rover on the Red Planet. The 2020s could mark the maiden flight of China’s first space plane; taking tourists on suborbital flights, touching the edge of space. It also plans to probe asteroids around 2022, followed by a probe in 2028 to bring Mars samples back to Earth. An exploration mission to the Jupiter system is planned around 2029.

The 2030s will see the development of reusable space vehicles and the launch of China’s first heavy-lift rocket – LM-9 – cable of carrying a payload of 50 tonnes (including astronauts) to the Moon. This will rival NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket with a payload capacity of 37 tonnes for lunar orbit.

We hear very little in the media of China’s conquests and rapid rise within the space industry. This could be because NASA appears to have had a monopoly with all things space for the last 60 years. However, as many of NASA’s flagship missions near their end, China could emerge as a key player within the next decade.


© Melanie Davies 2019

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