Sending a man into space has always been a potent demonstration of power requiring advanced technology as well as deep pockets, so when China joined the United States and the Soviet Union in successfully carrying out a manned space mission, many saw it as definitive proof of China’s re-ascension. Since then, China has sent six nationals into space, accomplished its first space walk and released a white paper containing plans to establish its own space station and put a Chinese national on the moon.
However impressive these achievements may be, their importance lies mainly in their symbolic value; the biggest development in the next few years in the Chinese space industry will be in the less glamorous field of commercial satellite technology. Over the last few years alone, this industry has already experienced staggering growth and it shows no signs of stopping.
(Right: A Long-March Series rocket blasts off. Left: The construction site for the new Hainan Satellite Launch Centre)
Growth in satellite technology
China has set itself some ambitious targets. Currently, 20 to 30 satellites are launched a year, most of which are conducted in Europe or Russia, and China is hoping to gain a 15% share of all global launches by the year 2020. In order to achieve this target, construction is in progress on a new launching facility in Hainan, which will join existing centres in Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi. Additionally, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation’s (CASIC) next generation of Long-March-5 rockets build by the will be able to place 25 tonne payloads into near-earth orbit. This is almost 5 tonnes more than the European Ariane rocket’s can carry, giving Chinese technology a competitive edge over its rivals.
The combination of increased launch facilities and more technologically advanced rockets and satellites is sure to draw more business towards China, a prospect which will be music to the ears of the two major aerospace companies in China; CASIC and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
It will also be a major boon for many other industries in China. The Beidou navigation system is one example; employing dozens of domestically produced satellites, it is expected to attain complete global coverage by 2020. This will provide China with a comprehensive, domestic mapping system for the first time, and will undoubtedly result in expansion in the GPS navigation system industry. Geospatial industries will also be affected; the greater amount of data available will mean the increase in projects as diverse as resource surveying and disaster detection and prevention. China may even be able to gain a foothold in the global data market.
Building on this domestic success, China has started looking abroad. US regulations prohibit exports to and launches of US satellites from China; effectively forcing China to either develop its own technologies or to find other, less hostile partners. Historically, European co-operation and assistance has been vital in expanding and developing the Chinese space industry; China enjoys a successful working relationship with the three European space agencies and China’s ‘Dragon’ program uses data from European satellite to help develop China’s earth observation science and applications. However, as space technology has matured, China has started testing the waters in emerging and developing markets in order to start exporting its wares.
China has already made and launched communication satellites for several developing countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan and Venezuela, and The China Great Wall Industry Corporation has also sighed contracts for communications satellites with Bolivia, Belarus and Turkmenistan. Value for money is the main selling point; by offering the same service for less, they are able to win contracts away from European and American companies. The executive director general of the Bolivian Space Agency even commented on this, indicating that they were making a saving of over $50 million dollars by choosing a Chinese company. As more countries recognize the need for increased telecommunications and mapping services, yet are unwilling to pay a premium, it is highly likely that China will be able to make further advances into these markets.
However, in the quest to gain a further share of the commercial space market, China will face some severe problems. The first is the reliability of its products; the Chinese-made NigComSat-1 commercial satellite which was exported to Nigeria failed 18 months after its launch in 2007. China acted swiftly, taking full responsibility and replacing the satellite with no additional cost to Nigeria. This resulted in serious financial losses, but the incident highlights how highly China values it’s customers in emerging markets. Judging by the slew of recent satellite contracts, their approach seems to have been successful.
The second, and much larger problem, will be U.S mistrust of China’s intentions in space. Although the 2013 National Defence Authorization Act recently signed by Obama does somewhat relax export restrictions, it still continues to prohibit exports to and launches of US satellites from China. This weariness may be justified. The 2007 anti-missile test was seen by many as an indication of China’s hostile designs, and another Chinese rocket launch last month, believed to be the test of anti-satellite technology, will hardly engender trust between the two nations. However deals such as the Pentagon’s renewal of its $10.7 million annual lease of China’s Apstar communication satellite, which carries data for American forces operating in Africa, may indicate a more pragmatic attitude.
With official backing and overseas interest, it is likely that the meteoric rise of China’s commercial satellite industry will continue. What remains to be seen is whether China’s increasing dominance in the global satellite industry will provoke hostility, either due to security concerns or simply as a result of their ability to undercut competition.