Outwardly, it looked like just another big space launch — and those happen about once a week, from spaceports all around the world. But Friday’s blast-off of a rocket, carrying a Chinese GPS-style navigation satellite, from the Xi Chang Satellite Launch Center was different. It set a record for successful Chinese launches in one year: 15.
The launch represented another important milestone. For the first time since the chilliest days of the Cold War, another country has matched the United States in sheer number of rocket launches.
To some observers, the rapid acceleration of the Chinese space program is perfectly reasonable, even expected. With nearly 20 percent of the world’s population and the planet’s second-biggest economy by some measures, it stands to reason that China would join other advanced, spacefaring nations — and on a grander scale.
But more cautious (or alarmist, depending on your point of view) China-watchers question Beijing’s motives, and warn of potentially dire consequences if China comes to dominate the heavens.
In an interview with Danger Room, space expert Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation took a measured view: Sure, China’s catching up fast, but the world’s most powerful Communist country still has a long way to go before it can go toe-to-toe with the United States in space.
Weeden’s argument boils down to an appreciation of quality versus quantity. “On a pure technology basis, I would put them [China] behind the established spacefaring states such as the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. This is largely due to China’s deficiencies in advanced technology in general and not limited to just space. However, on a space-capability basis, I would put them ahead of everyone but the United States and Russia, and just behind those two leaders.”
In other words, China makes up for the generally lower-quality of its spacecraft by building more of them — and a greater variety.
For instance, Beijing can’t match the high quality of Canada’s RADARSAT-2 radar-imaging satellite. “However, Canada does not have an indigenous human spaceflight program or indigenous space launch capability,” Weeden pointed out, and China does. Beijing is “in the process of building constellations of on-orbit satellite to provide a wide variety of capabilities, which will likely surpass Russia (whose satellite constellations are in decline) and end up second only to the U.S.”
But even with China matching U.S. launch rates, that near-parity could take decades — or never happen at all, considering the huge demographic pressures Beijing faces. China’s 15 launches in 2010 boosted Beijing’s space arsenal to around 67 satellites, both military- and civilian-owned. Russia still has 99, but with its unreliable rockets and rickety finances is struggling to maintain that number.
The United States, by contrast, owns 441 satellites that we know about, including unique spacecraft such as the Advanced Orion radio snoop (at a reported span of 300 feet, the biggest sat in the world) plus the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle and the shuttle’s smaller robotic replacement, the Air Force’s X-37B.
In many ways, China’s ascent in space reflects the country’s rapid military modernization on the ground, in the air and at sea — and raises some of the same concerns. After decades of dormancy, China is finally awakening to its full potential. That means big technical and professional leaps, fast. But Beijing started so far behind other world powers, that even big leaps can leave it a distant runner-up.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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