This article is the fourth in a series of four reports on Airshow China, a biannual exhibition held in Zhuhai city, China.
This year’s Zhuhai Airshow, held Nov. 6–11, emphasized China’s technical progress in its People’s Liberation Army (PLA)-controlled space program, affirming earlier indications of the Beijing regime’s strategic ambitions in space.
Highlights included affirmations that China is beginning a new effort to create the next generation of space launch vehicles (SLVs), and a “Lunar Gateway” architecture of spacecraft that could accelerate its arrival on the moon, competing with U.S. programs to reach the moon, and even those of private companies such as SpaceX.
At Zhuhai, China also indicated that it’s on track to begin assembling its manned Low Earth Orbit Space Station, and is successfully encouraging new “private” space companies, some of which may seek to rival U.S. private space companies.
Manned Access to Moon in the 2020s
This year’s show confirmed some earlier Chinese revelations pointing to China’s decision to accelerate its race to get to the moon, at a minimum, potentially matching NASA plans to build a “Lunar Gateway” to facilitate early and economical manned access to the moon.
The goal of the United States is to have a small four-person space station in “Cis-Lunar” space orbiting the moon by the mid-2020s, but then to build a lander capable of ferrying astronauts between the Cis-Lunar space station and the moon’s surface.
This effort could put Americans on the moon again by the late 2020s, perhaps by 2028. Informal Chinese sources suggest that China’s next-generation manned space vehicles could put Chinese on the moon at about the same time, or by 2027. That would be sooner than the current timetable for China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s (CASC) very large 10-meter-diameter (32.8 feet) Long March-9 (LM-9/CZ-9), which would be capable of powering 50 tons to Lunar Transfer Orbit (LTO) to the moon and is expected to fly by the early 2030s. Some Chinese commentators speculate financial resources may be shifting from Long March-9 development to the new SLV.
Just before the Zhuhai show, Chinese officials speaking at the Oct. 23 Fifth Manned Space Conference in Beijing began to reveal an effort to accelerate China’s path to the moon, primarily redirecting its efforts toward a new smaller 5-meter-diameter (16.4 feet) SLV with only a 25-ton LTO capability, capable of being completed in the early 2020s.
A new, unnamed SLV model was featured at the Zhuhai show; it would exploit existing Chinese liquid-fuel engine technology and rocket technology from the 5-meter diameter Long March-5. But Chinese reports note it also will incorporate some technology advances known to have been developed by SpaceX, such as supercooling liquid oxygen to increase carriage, and using lighter weight, composite structure fuel tanks. At Zhuhai, a CASC official said that key technologies could be completed by 2019, meaning the SLV could be ready by the early-to-mid 2020s.
China also displayed a partial model of a new manned space capsule, approved for development in 2014, which is expected to be China’s main manned spaceship to reach the moon. It will be built in two versions, a 14-ton version for Low Earth Orbit missions, and a 20-ton version for lunar transport missions. It will carry four to six passengers, compared to the three carried by the current Shenzhou space capsule. It also was revealed at the Oct. 23 conference that China may build its own “Gateway” —like the Cis-Lunar small space station—and develop a moon landing vehicle.
Space Station Core Module on Display
For the first time, at this year’s Zhuhai show, China displayed a full-size replica of the core module of its future space station, called “Tianhe,” which could be launched as early as 2020 by a new Long March-5B SLV. By 2022, Tianhe will be joined by two 20- to 21-ton experimental modules called “Wengtian” and “Mengtian,” resulting in an initial operating weight of 60 to 80 tons. Additional modules could be added, eventually raising the station’s weight to 160-180 tons. At its initial weight, the Chinese space station could host up to three passengers. China has invited international participants, and the first visitor may be an astronaut from Pakistan, in 2022.
One of the space station’s experimental modules has an area that could be used to place optical systems for observing deep space or the Earth, raising the issue of how the PLA-controlled space station might undertake “dual use” military missions. The space station, under current plans, will be accompanied by a separate platform, flying in formation, which would contain space observing telescopes, but also other instruments that could be replaced by the space station. This platform might also be used to carry military payloads.
The 12th Zhuhai exhibition provided some confirmation that China intends to accelerate its efforts to reach the moon, potentially striving to arrive there at around the same time the United States may make its return. Control of the moon would be a major objective for China, both to ensure its access to moon resources and to gain the strategic position necessary to deny access to the United States and other space-faring democracies.
Some sources indicate that the PLA is actively planning for conflict on the moon, and to militarily exploit the moon to increase PLA control of the Earth-moon system. That would assist China’s ability to prevail in conflicts on Earth, while also enabling Beijing to determine which countries may benefit from a future space economy.
Rick Fisher is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of “China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach.”