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New Chinese space plans are all about security and strategy on Earth

Nothing much to do with manned or deep space exploring

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Analysis Chinese officials have published a new white paper detailing China's aspirations in space for coming years. Most media have chosen to focus on Beijing's vague aspirations toward deep-space and manned exploration, but in fact the concrete details given all point toward a primary emphasis on strategic advantage for China here on Earth.

The white paper can be read in full in English here, courtesy of China Daily. In it, certain definite steps which the People's Republic intends to take are outlined. Firstly, three new "Long March" rocket launchers will be built:

The Long March-5 will use non-toxic and pollution-free propellant, and will be capable of placing 25 tons of payload into the near-Earth orbit, or placing 14 tons of payload into the GEO orbit. The Long March-6 will be a new type of high-speed response launch vehicle, which will be capable of placing not less than 1 ton of payload into a sun-synchronous orbit at a height of 700 km. The Long March-7 will be capable of placing 5.5 tons of payload into a sun-synchronous orbit at a height of 700 km.

So the Long March 5 will be liquid-hydrogen fuelled (hence the "pollution free" bit, as like all hydrogen rockets its exhaust is steam) and intended for general-purpose work. But the 6 and 7 models are intended for putting satellites into sun-synchronous orbits, a type of orbit preferred for spacecraft whose primary mission is looking down on the planet beneath. Sometimes this is for wholly scientific purposes, but generally such satellites can be very useful for espionage and military tasks - even if they are ostensibly scientific or commercial in nature, and are genuinely used as such much of the time. And the Long March 6, with "high speed response" will be particularly useful for reactive military/intelligence tasks where time is short - or outright space-warfare anti-satellite missions, if required. A rocket that can send up a spy satellite can also intercept a spy satellite.

Then we learn from the white paper that China will establish a comprehensive set of satellite constellations orbiting Earth, rivalling those of the USA in what they can accomplish. First, there will be a global network of surveillance, sorry, "Earth observation" spacecraft:

[China will deploy] stereo mapping satellites, radar satellites for environment and disaster monitoring, electromagnetic monitoring test satellites, and other new-type Earth observation satellites. It will work to make breakthroughs in key technologies for interferometric synthetic-aperture radar ... It will initiate a high-resolution Earth observation system as an important scientific and technological project and establish on the whole a stable all-weather, 24-hour, multi-spectral, various-resolution Earth observation system.

Sure you can use radar sats for "environment and disaster monitoring", but people didn't invent them for that. Back in Cold War times, in fact, the Soviets developed radar-ocean-reconnaissance birds for the purpose of locating and tracking US warships at sea - and there can't be much doubt that the modern-day Chinese military, frequently annoyed by US carrier task forces lurking off its coasts, would like to be able to do this too.

US admirals are much worried these days by Chinese plans to develop missiles capable of knocking out a carrier far out at sea, but in order to launch such a missile successfully you must first find your carrier - which is by no means a simple business without satellites as its umbrella of warplanes prevents normal aerial reconnaissance from locating it.

Then, "electromagnetic monitoring" is electronic intelligence plain and simple.

And there's more:

Based on "three-step" development plan - from experimental system to regional system and then to global system, China will continue building its Beidou satellite navigation system, implementing a regional Beidou satellite navigation system before 2012, whose navigation and positioning, timing and short-message services will cover the Asia-Pacific region. China aims at completing the global Beidou satellite navigation system by 2020.

Again, satellite navigation-and-timing can be (nowadays mainly is) used for peaceful purposes. The only global-coverage satnav constellation now in service, the US Global Positioning System (GPS), is overwhelmingly used by commercial receivers for non-military tasks.

But GPS was built and is run by the US Department of Defense, not any civilian agency, and it was originally developed with the goal of making America's intercontinental ballistic missile warheads hugely more accurate, not that of letting minicabs operate more easily.

Using unassisted astro and inertial guidance, an ICBM warhead can strike with enough precision to destroy a city: but aided by GPS it can hit close enough to its target coordinates to take out a deeply buried, hardened missile silo. All of the world's five major nuclear-weapon states - the UN Security Council permanent five members - possess ICBMs with global range, but only the USA has a global sat-nav constellation it can rely upon completely.

Nowadays satellite navigation is of broader military significance: it is vital to the functioning of smart bombs and other conventional precision weapons of all kinds, not to mention general navigation and operations by ships, aircraft, vehicles and even foot soldiers. And outside the military sphere, many governments around the world look with disquiet on the growing dependence of their civilian shipping, aviation, even in time road and rail transport, on assets controlled by a foreign defence department.

Funnily enough Russia is building up its GLONASS nav-sat fleet again, following the financial troubles of the 1990s, and it is an open secret that much of the push behind the European Galileo system comes from the French military, which has long chafed at being reliant on US assistance to deliver accurate strikes - or even in some cases to keep cellphone coverage up, or aircraft flying in bad weather.

Compared to a global surveillance, navigation and communications fleet and the infrastructure required to maintain these in continuous service - which China says it will build, too - the rest of the announcements in the white paper don't amount to much. There will be some ongoing experimental manned work in low orbit involving more docking of capsules (already achieved as unmanned tests), and "studies" into a manned moon landing one day. There will be some comparatively cheap and lightweight deep-space unmanned science missions - but this will be "in stages, with limited goals".

Reading the world's press, you'd imagine that these latter vague aspirations were the main thrust of the announcements. But the truth is that - just as with the USA and Russia, and to a significant extent with Europe - China's space programme is all about increasing its security and influence here on Earth, and very little to do with expanding humanity's frontiers out into space. ®

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