Category Archives: Space

Stratospheric Balloon Technology Is Up There

Chinese stratospheric balloon seen over the United States, February, 2023

THE UNITED STATES says that the high-altitude balloon it shot down at the weekend that China says was a strayed weather balloon was not a one-off but part of a globally deployed fleet of stratospheric surveillance balloons.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Chinese balloons ‘have violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents’ and that Washington was sharing information from the one it shot down with various governments.

US officials have been briefing that the fleet operates from Hainan Island, home to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Southern Theatre Command, and over the years has flown spying missions over Japan, Vietnam, India and Taiwan, among other countries, including previous overflights of the United States. One flew over South America concurrently with the flight of the one the United States shot down.

The one shot down, US officials say, was carrying devices to intercept communications — sigint gathering, in the jargon — among other surveillance equipment. Its solar panel array would have provided sufficient power for multiple surveillance devices.

Based on research papers published in recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been showing interest in the military applications of ballons, including as a means to test the air defences of adversaries as well as for electronic surveillance and supporting PLA-Air Force attack missions. Chinese military researchers have also been looking at the way the United States uses high-altitude balloons as part of its early warning systems against missile attacks and to supplement ground-based air defence systems.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Aerospace Information Research Institute and Institute of Optics and Electronics are also researching stratospheric balloons for near-space use. They have conducted test launches, including balloons claimed to be capable of carrying payloads of over 1,000 kilogrammes. While these have civilian uses, such as land imaging and environmental mapping, the technology would readily transfer to military use.

US officials’ descriptions of the downed Chinese balloon suggest that it is at least ten times larger in diameter than a typical weather balloon and carried a payload of at least 900 kilogrammes, compared to the less than 200 grammes typical of the small and expendable measuring device called a radiosonde that weather balloons usually carry. It also appears to have been made of a plastic film, not latex, which is the usual material for weather balloons — and why they burst relatively quickly, giving short flying times, nothing like the days the downed balloon took to traverse Canada and the United States.

Larger balloons carrying equipment for civilian high-altitude photography and videography would be three times larger than a typical weather balloon but still only a third of the size of the one shot down.

The Foreign Ministry has said it does not know which company owns or manufactured the downed balloon. However, US officials have said they have identified a balloon manufacturer that sells to the PLA.

Weather balloon manufacture in China is dominated by Zhuzhou Rubber, part of state-owned ChemChina, which makes 75% of high-altitude balloons used by the China Meteorological Administration (CMA).

The CMA has its roots in the military but has been a civilian agency since the mid-1990s. It is highly unlikely the one shot down was one of its. Earlier this month, it said it had seven meteorological satellites in orbit. These could be used as relays to transmit data from high-altitude balloons back to ground stations.

The other manufacturer capable of making balloons that fly at that height is Guangzhou Double-One Weather Equipment. It has said the downed balloon was not one of its.

A US Air Force defence contractor, Raven Aerostar, and another US company, World View Enterprises, make stratospheric balloons of similar size and capacity to the Chinese one. These are ‘steered’ by moving them up or down to catch air currents moving in the desired direction. The Chinese balloons likely operate in the same way.

It is easy to imagine a fleet of stratospheric balloons able to communicate with each other and form a high-altitude mesh network providing real-time coverage of what is below — whether environmental conditions or military assets — from near-space and using the increasing constellations of communications satellites being put into space by US and Chinese entities to relay their data back to earth.

The 14th Five-Year Plan (2020-25) identifies the development of a national broadband satellite constellation as a policy goal, and earlier this week Beijing announced a licencing system for satellite internet providers.

Our man in Washington tells us that the US is now considering sanctions against Chinese balloon makers that sell to the PLA.

Stratospheric ballooning has its technical challenges, but they are not exactly rocket science, so to speak. Its wide application to civilian use will make it a new and particularly querulous front in the contention over dual-use technologies between Washington and Beijing.

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China-Russia Collaboration Will Speed Up Race For The Moon

The Moon. Photo credit: Raffael Herrmann. Public Domain

IT IS SCARCELY a secret that Beijing and Moscow are teaming up on lunar exploration.

The latest confirmation comes with Wu Yanhua, a deputy director of the China National Space Administration, saying that the two countries aim to complete basic infrastructure construction for a lunar station by 2035. Longer-term plans are to grow the base to the size of a small town with systems for energy, communication and life support.

Wu’s comments came during a briefing on the launch of a white paper on China’s space programme released on January 28.

The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding last March on the building of the lunar research station and are expected to sign the full agreement shortly, perhaps while Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing in February for the Winter Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, Liu Jizhong, director of the administration’s China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, says the two countries have already agreed to cooperate on a robotic lunar mission using China’s Chang’e 7 probe and Russia’s Luna-26 orbiter around 2025 to explore water distribution as well as the poles of the moon, particularly to assess if the south pole is suitable for a soft landing. China plans two such robotic probe missions.

Ye Peijian, the chief designer of China’s first lunar probe, has said that the country may be able to send astronauts to the moon for the first time within five years. That would edge the target date for the United States to return astronauts to the moon on a sustained basis under its Artemis program.

The joint Russian-Chinese collaboration and the United States’ Artemis programme are direct rivals in a new race to the moon. The US space agency, NASA, had hoped that its cooperation with Russia, with which it jointly operates the International Space Station, would carry over to Artemis, but Moscow has so given that hope the cold shoulder, reflecting current geopolitical realities.

The space white paper says China would welcome international participation in the lunar research station project, but it is difficult to see the United States or its allies taking up the offer. It might be appealing to countries like Thailand or Saudi Arabia, however.

China’s most recent mission to the moon was the Chang’e 5, which brought back lunar samples last year. A rover set down on the far side of the moon in 2019 is still exploring the surface.

The white paper also lays out China’s other priorities in space over the next five years. As well as completing its Tiangong space station, these include developing cislunar transport systems, space infrastructure, human-crewed spaceflight, deep space exploration and space governance.

It also drops markers for longer-term ambitions to bring back samples from Mars and explore Jupiter and the outer edges of the solar system.

Perhaps most intriguing are the hints the white paper gives about commercialising space. It lists space debris cleaning as a business focus, a rubric under which space tourism, test services, satellites and space biopharmaceuticals also fall. Longer-term, lunar mining is a likely area of potential China-US competition.

The 14th Five-Year Plan, which covers 2021-25 and was released last March, includes a new spaceport for commercial launches. China has made its rocket launches available to private firms since 2014. However, the Peoples’ Liberation Army controls the four existing sites, only one of which supports private launches. An additional launch site could spur the development of commercial space activity, particularly for the satellite industry, and increase the overall launch capacity.

Meeting such commercial ambitions, however, would likely require the transfer of state space technologies to private companies, which could run into national security concerns and other political sensitivities, although any private companies involved would likely be closely aligned with national goals.

Nonetheless, the dual civilian-military development of such technologies, especially those for space debris cleaning, which could be used to capture active satellites as well as space junk will raise red flags in Washington and Brussels.

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China Adds To The Ambiguity Of The Arms Race In Space

WHATEVER IT WAS that China was test-launching from a space rocket this summer, it has ignited fears of both an expansion in China’s nuclear warfare capabilities and an arms race in space.

Earlier in the week, the Financial Times reported that in mid-August, China had tested a ‘nuclear-capable hypersonic missile’. This was launched in space from a Long March rocket and flew in a low orbit around the earth before gliding down on its target (which it missed by several miles). A follow-up report, quoting US intelligence sources, said that flight was, in fact, a second test, the earlier one having been made in late July.

The Chinese version of events is that it had not conducted a weapons test but only launched a spaceplane. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that a routine test had been carried out on July 16 to verify different types of reusable spacecraft technology to reduce the cost of spacecraft use.

The hypersonic orbiter was reportedly built by a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., which is China’s main space manufacturer.

Beyond the discrepancies over the dates, the two sets of descriptions are not mutually incompatible.

What has concerned US defence analysts is that this novel propulsion technology, once perfected, could potentially circumvent American defence systems by sending a missile into low-orbit over the South Pole, thus evading US anti-missile systems that are directed towards the northern hemisphere. 

This approach to nuclear attacks, known as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, was first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The Soviet Union had dropped the idea by the 1980s because of various shortcomings and improvements to intercontinental ballistic missiles, but not before it had acted as an accelerant to the Cold War arms race.

The latest Chinese tests will intensify US concerns about China’s rapidly modernising military and accelerate Washington’s upgrade of US weapons systems. At first, this may involve improving defensive capabilities such as missile detection but likely become offensive in terms of interceptors and potentially offensive anti-satellite weapons.

Beijing would likely respond in kind, although it has called for measures to restrict space weapons. However, dual-use space technologies offer the big powers useful ambiguity to develop systems with the potential to be space weapons even while claiming not to be ‘weaponising’ space.

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China Ups The Ante In The Race To Mars

Rendering of surface of Mars

CHINA HAS LAID down a significant marker in its race to catch up and surpass the United States in space: putting humans on Mars by 2033.

Wang Xiaojun, head of the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the country’s leading launch rocket manufacturer, mentioned the target at the Global Space Exploration Conference in St Petersburg earlier this month, adding that China would first have to conduct robotic missions to the red planet before sending taikonauts or building a research base there. 

China currently has a robotic space rover, the Zhurong, which landed in May, exploring the planet’s surface. 

Wang suggested there would be at least five crewed flights to Mars between 2033 and 2044 and sketched out a possible future string of Chinese space relay stations between Earth and Mars along with an interplanetary cargo fleet enabling large-scale development of the planet. That hints at a sustainable colony and mining.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also plans to send crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s after returning to the Moon later this decade. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson describes China as a ‘very aggressive space competitor’.

China is still playing catch-up, however. NASA landed its first rover on Mars in 1997 and fifth in February.

In 2011, the US Congress passed a law banning Nasa from working with China in space. That has propelled the Chinese space programme forward at a rapid pace and made it a symbol of self-reliance. 

Excluded from the International Space Station (ISS), a collaboration between the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and the EU, China is currently constructing its first permanent space station. The Tianhe’s first three taikonauts arrived about a week ago for a three-month set-up stay.

The space station’s operational life is expected to overlap with establishing a base on the Moon, possibly jointly with the Russians, in the mid-2020s and the start of crewed flights to Mars.

With the ISS due to be decommissioned in the mid-2020s, that could create a situation in which all the space nations except the United States were cooperating with China, for lack of alternatives, although private US companies may have established space stations by then.

Beijing’s ambitious space programme lets the country demonstrate that it is a global scientific leader, show off its technological prowess that can underpin both the state programme and a commercial space industry, and quietly but firmly underline its potential military might in space as space technology is inherently dual-use. 

Those are all sources of national pride — and prestige and legitimacy for the Party — and the hallmarks of a superpower. But, equally, they are grounds for suspicion outside China and an extension of US-China terrestrial rivalry into outer space. 

The capabilities of Chinese anti-satellite weaponry particularly concern Washington. President Joe Biden has shown no inclination to disband the US’s military’s Space Command and Space Force initiated by his predecessor.

Beijing’s political commitment to human spaceflight is strong, even if it is the most dangerous, challenging and expensive part of China’s space programme while being the militarily least valuable and having the most uncertain long-term commercial benefits. Its priorities could change if the geopolitical context changes.


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A Red Flag On The Red Planet

LANDING A ROVER on Mars is another feather in the cap of China’s space programme. Only the United States has successfully pulled off setting down a spacecraft on the red planet before. The European space programme has twice tried and failed.

That state media did not announce the Zhurong’s landing until it had happened without mishap is a sign of how difficult the manoeuvre is. (The screenshot above is taken from state TV coverage.)

If all continues to go well, the rover will spend three months exploring the geology of the Utopia Planitia, a vast but uneven plain in northern Mars thought to be a dried-out ocean bed and where the US space agency, NASA, put down its Viking 2 rover in 1976.

The Zhurong looks a lot like another NASA rover, the Spirit, which was put down in 2004 in the Gusev crater to the south, but five years later got trapped in a sandpit from which it could not be extricated.

The rover offers Beijing another opportunity for national promotion through space diplomacy. President Xi Jinping’s congratulatory message stressed adhering to self-reliance in sci-tech development and called for boosting China’s strength in space technology while promoting the noble cause of peace and development of humanity.

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China’s Way Station To The Moon

Launch of Tianhe core space module for Tiangong Space Station

THE LAUNCH OF the first of three modules of a permanent space station (above) marks another step forward for China’s human spaceflight programme.

Previous single-module space labs have allowed astronauts abroad for brief visits, but once fully assembled, the Tiangong Space Station will be crewed full-time by three astronauts and is expected to operate into the 2030s.

It will conduct experiments and offers China some opportunity for space diplomacy by hosting research projects and possibly astronauts from other countries’ space agencies, such as Russia and the EU (but not NASA unless the United States changes its laws forbidding it).

However, unlike the much larger International Space Station, a collaboration between the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and the EU, China’s space station will be predominantly an all-Chinese affair to develop the core technology for Beijing’s ambitious civilian and military ambitions in space.

These include an eventually lunar landing and some form of continued human presence on the moon.

Technology development has been a distinctive characteristic of the space programme. Having a space station will add a sheen to China’s image as a technological leader, and like aircraft carriers, space stations are a badge of being a superpower.

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One Planet, Four Systems

A TECHNOLOGICALLY DECOUPLED world of Chinese and US standards and systems has moved a step nearer, or at least a satellite launch nearer. China has sent up the final BeiDou satellite (see above) needed to complete its orbital navigation constellation, which will provide a rival to the US global positioning system, GPS, the EU’s Galileo and Russia’s GLONASS.

The BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) is designed to meet the needs of the country’s economic and national security goals. The project was conceived in the 1980s, and the first satellite launch dates back to 2000. There are now 27 satellites in medium Earth orbit, five in geostationary orbit and three more in inclined geosynchronous orbits.

With the system’s completion will come a wide range of applications for communications, fishing, hydrological monitoring, weather forecasting, surveying, mapping and geographic information, forest fire-prevention, time synchronization, disaster mitigation and relief and emergency search and rescue.

As well as the immense commercial value of such services (albeit it, no doubt, with rows to come about Beijing’s access to the data that flows through them), BDS gives Beijing military independence from the United States for a critical piece of space infrastructure.

It will take some time for the People’s Liberation Army to integrate BDS into its forces on the ground and its long-range conventional missile systems. The United States has 30 years of experience of using GPS in combat that the PLA will have to catch up on.

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It Is Rocket Science

China’s second Long March-5 rocket lifts off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, Hainan on July 2. Photo credit: Xinhua

WE DO NOT yet know — and may not for some time — what was the ‘anomaly’ that caused the failure seemingly some 10 minutes after take-off of the new Long March-5 rocket launched on July 2.

Beyond the obvious national embarrassment of any such space programme failure, this particular one is damaging to China’s space programme. How damaging will not be clear until it is known whether the failure lay in the Long March-5 launch vehicle or its Dongfanghong-5 (DFH-5) satellite propulsion system payload.

This was only the second flight of the Long March-5, intended as the first of a family of work-horse heavy-lift launch vehicles for the forthcoming lunar and Mars space programmes that will frame China’s civil and military space programme for the next few decades. The rocket can lift twice the payload of any other Chinese rocket and is on a par with the most powerful launchers the Americans have.

The DFH-5 satellite propulsion system is similarly leading edge in its use of new technologies. It and intended to put the next generation of large geostationary telecoms and earth observation satellites in orbit and control them once there. This one was attached to the new (and heavy) experimental Shijian-18 communications satellite.

Such satellites could be used for a variety of communications services from internet connectivity to aeronautical services, distance learning and telemedicine, all of which will be of used for China’s planned high-tech civil and military development.

Unusually, the launch was covered live on TV. Although coverage ended abruptly and without explanation, authorities were, at least, spared the embarrassment of a catastrophic failure while the rocket was still visible to the cameras. However, it was a powerful reminder that space flight is dangerous, difficult and complex. It is rocket science.

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China’s Space Bill

This screen shot taken on June 26, 2012 shows the Chinese astronauts who are conducting scientific tests in Tiangong-1 space lab module waving hands in Tiangong-1. Chinese President Hu Jintao came to the Beijing Aerospace Control Center on Tuesday and talked with the astronauts. (Xinhua)

China will have spent 39 billion yuan ($6.1 billion) on its manned space missions between the program’s launch in 1992 and the end of next year, according to Wu Ping, a space program spokesman quoted in the Beijing Times. Half of that was spent in the period up to 2005, the year of the Shenzhou-6 mission. The rest has gone on the subsequent flights that will culminate in Shenzhou-10’s mission next year. The photo above shows the three astronauts on the current mission, Shenzhou-9, aboard the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module following docking.

By way of comparison, the U.S.’s Apollo program, the one that put Americans on the Moon and first docked a spacecraft  in 1966, was estimated in 1973 to have cost $25.4 billion, which is $135 billion in 2012 dollars. China is making great strides in space, but the numbers suggest how far it still has to go to catch up the U.S. and Russia as space powers.


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China Confirms Plan For Its First Woman In Space

One of the two female astronauts, Liu Yang (L) and Wang Yaping (R), from the Wuhan Flight Unit, will join Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft docking mission with Tiangong-1. State media has confirmed that one of the two female astronauts from the initial seven-strong crew roster for Shenzhou-9’s manned docking mission with the space module, Tiangong-1, will be among the three-person flight crew. They have been named as Liu Yang (on the far left in the photo) and Yang Waping. The two women are military-transport pilots from the PLA-Air Force’s Wuhan flight unit. Both are 34 years old, married and are mothers of one. They joined the space program in 2010.

Reading the runes as best we can, we think that Liu, who holds the more senior rank, major v captain, is said once to have made a successful emergency landing after her cargo plane flew into a flock of pigeons–the stuff of hero myth building– will be the one to get the nod. The first window for the Shenzhou-9 launch is June 16th.

Update: Liu has been confirmed as a member of the flight crew.


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