A raging pandemic — which originated in China — has had very little adverse effect, allowing the Chinese to insulate their space programme from the worst effects of COVID-19.
Several important developments in the Chinese space programme over the last ten months of 2020 are noteworthy and require careful analysis to ascertain their implications for India. Three areas are:
i. Chinese space launch rates,
ii. China’s collaboration with foreign space startups in the development of low-cost satellite propulsion fuel, and
iii. China’s reportedly successful test of a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV).
In all these three segments, the Chinese space programme appears to have made progress this past year. Each of these milestones suggest that a raging pandemic — which originated in China — has had very little adverse effect, allowing the Chinese to insulate their space programme from the worst effects of COVID-19.
Let us begin with the first — launch rates. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC), for the third successive year since 2018, has undertaken the most space launches. As of 17 November 2020, the Chinese completed 34 successful launches. By the conclusion of this year, the PRC is expected to finish with approximately forty launches and will possibly be ahead of the US. China’s orbital launch rates are nothing but spectacular in the context of the global health pandemic and the poor economic performance of the world’s major economies. Overall, the only caveat is that China has experienced higher launch failures than advanced space-faring countries such as the US and still trails the US and Russia in satellite or space craft mass placed in orbit every year. Nevertheless, this year alone yielded several major milestones for the Chinese in their space programme. China’s space launches are not merely a quantitative indicator; they also reflect qualitative leaps in the types of spacecraft launched as well as fuel used to power launch vehicles and platforms from which launches were executed. Prominent spacecraft launched in the past year included the Tiantong-1 (02) mobile communications satellite. In the final week of November 2020, the PRC is expected to launch the Chang’e 5 lunar sample mission, which is intended to return with moon soil and rock samples to earth.
The other notable development in the Chinese space programme that has gone unnoticed, at least in India, is how Chinese space startups have tied up with their European counterparts. The most visible example of cooperation is the French propulsion startup, ThrustMe, tying up with the Chinese startup Spacety. In 2019, following the agreement, ThrustMe tested some key in-orbit technologies aboard Spacety’s Xiaoxiang 1-08 such as, “…iodine storage, delivery, and sublimation…” This was part of a demonstration that tested an iodine-based thruster to propel a small spacecraft built by Spacety. Following the recent launch, it is indeed the first time for China and France that an iodine propulsion electric system will be fully tested in space aboard a cube satellite dubbed Beihangkogshi-1, which was designed by Spacety. The demonstration will use the newly developed NPT-I2 electric propulsion system. Iodine-based propulsion for small satellites is increasingly being recognised the world over because it could help reduce the mass of spacecraft; and the volume, cost and risks to the propulsive performance of spacecrafts. For instance, National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) iSat Small Satellite (SmSat) is another space programme involved in testing iodine-based propulsion. This effort is part of a demonstration mission by NASA.
More pertinently, the tie-up between Spacety and ThrustMe represents a significant step in collaboration between a Chinese and Europe-based startup. The facilitative factor aiding this Joint Venture (JV) is the relaxed regulatory environment among the European Union (EU) states on space collaboration with a major non-EU and non-Western space-faring country. The United States of America’s (USA) International Traffic in Arms Control (ITAR) or Washington’s export control law has onerous conditions when it comes to cooperation between American space companies and non-American companies. Indeed, European companies are building spacecraft and technologies that are divested of ITAR components. As this Sino-French startup collaboration visibly demonstrates, Europeans appear not to be as acutely concerned about cooperating with Chinese start-ups and companies. There are several that continue to cooperate with Chinese companies, such as the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, GomSpace, ISIS and Thales Alenia Space. It is unclear if the ongoing pandemic has significantly derailed cooperation between European space majors and PRC-based companies. An additional standout feature of the Spacety-ThrustMe tie-up is that Spacety ran risks, which allowed ThrustMe to test its newly built propulsion system aboard the former’s spacecraft. The new propulsion system is also designed and intended to mitigate debris by enabling the deorbit of small satellites, increase the orbital lifetime of the spacecraft and prevent in-orbit satellite collision. However, deeper and more enduring cooperation between European space companies and Chinese companies is still a work in progress.
Finally, on 4 September this year, China appears to have successfully launched and landed a Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV). This event again went unnoticed in India, although details about the Chinese RLV, which was launched from the Gobi Desert-based Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center are still obscure. The RLV is believed to have injected a satellite into orbit and “…successfully returned to the scheduled landing site on 6 September, after flying in orbit for 2 days.” Within the year, China will reportedly launch the Long March-8 rocket designed to execute Space-X type Falcon-9 type lift-offs and landings. Although most likely the Long March 8 will be an expendable version and will serve at best as a building block for proven and vigorously tested Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) reusable rockest. Even Wu Yansheng, a top technologist with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) admitted that a confirmed and credible VTVL capability may not be on the horizon until 2025.
All these developments represent tangible progress for the Chinese space programme and present some uneasy questions for India. Was India’s COVID-19 lockdown too stringent and eventually prevented a network of private manufacturers and suppliers to the Indian space programme from meeting the requirement of the ISRO’s space missions? Indeed, K. Sivan the ISRO Chairman conceded in late June this year that: “Because of this (pandemic), everything got disturbed. We have to make an assessment after the COVID-19 issue is resolved. Gaganyaan will be impacted because of the lockdown…all industries have not yet started functioning. All missions (including Chandrayaan 3) have been impacted.” The only launch the ISRO executed in 2020 was on 7 November when it sent ten satellites into orbit after a gap of nearly eleven months. This hiatus between the ISRO’s launches has been substantial and the lockdown, if not outrightly crippling, will delay future missions for the space programme whose launch rates even before the pandemic were among the lowest in the select world of advanced space-faring countries. Despite Chinese claims about successfully testing an RLV, India’s space managers need not be concerned. But this must not be so with what Chinese startups are doing with their Western counterparts. The implication is clear for India’s emerging space startup sector: it needs collaborations of the kind that was forged between Spacety and ThrustMe. Will Indian space startups run risks like Spacety did? Will foreign startups collaborate with their Indian counterparts? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but the Space Activities Bill, which will become law, may help resolve many lingering issues. However, the ISRO and Indian space startups have a formidable task ahead of them if they are to come close to matching the Chinese.
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Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...Read More +