Conquest of space: US and China prepare their weapons

In 2023, China will proceed in a methodical and accelerated manner with the implementation of its space program. At the moment there is certainly no shortage of earthly concerns. They range from the need to support the country’s economy to the obligation to measure the effects of the lifting of anti-Covid controls, through the concern to keep distance from Russian actions in Ukraine. But all this should not, from the perspective of Beijing, hamper the ambition to conquer space that China has set itself.

On December 29, the Xichang Launch Base in southwest China’s Sichuan Province celebrated the successful launch of a Long March 3B rocket, which placed an experimental geostationary satellite into orbit. It was the 53rde launched in 2022 by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

The official news agency Xinhua points out that in total “China launched more than 140 spacecraft into space by 2022 with a 100% success rate. This record has established a solid foundation for Beijing to become a major global space power.” But there are sometimes uncontrolled falls of debris on Earth. Like last November when a successful Chinese rocket finally crashed in the Philippines.

But the most spectacular Chinese performances are made from the Jiuquan launch base in the Gobi Desert in northern China. It is from here that the many space flights depart, also launched within the framework of the Chinese space program, managed jointly by the China National Space Administration, which plans the flights, and CASC, which carries them out.

Probes and men

After sending a spacecraft to the lunar surface in 2013, Beijing did it again in 2020 with Chang’e 5, named after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology. He brought lunar soil samples back to Earth, something no one had done since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Then, in January 2019, China was the first country to land a space probe (Chang’e 4) on the other side of The Moon, to collect data on this area invisible from Earth. It is the first time that Chinese scientists have innovated without taking a route already taken by the Americans or the Russians.

Alongside these various interplanetary missions, China is organizing the strengthening of its presence in space. It completed the establishment of a space station in Earth orbit in 2022 and plans to establish an autonomous lunar research station near the Moon’s South Pole in 2025. Beijing has also announced its goal of sending taikonauts to the Moon by 2030, the project being to install a permanent human presence there. On the other hand, a solar power plant must be built in space to be able to supply future Chinese bases that exploit mining resources on the Moon and on asteroids.

Plans are also afoot in Beijing to launch a solar-powered space station into geosynchronous orbit. China also has other more distant goals: it sent a probe called Tianwen-1 to the planet Mars in 2021; the Zhurong rover in 2022; and a third launch is planned for 2023. But for now, Zhurong, which was put to sleep during the Martian winter, seems to be having a little trouble capturing solar energy and resuming exploration.

An old passion

The country’s interest in space is very old. Since ancient times, Chinese astronomers (the “heaven watchers”) have perfected extremely precise and meticulous observations of the celestial firmament. A complete map of the sky from VIIe century was thus found at Dunhuang, in northern China, in the region of the thousand Buddhas: 1,339 stars, divided into 257 constellations, are represented there on twelve panels.

After coming to power in 1949, Mao Zedong’s communist regime began to encourage the work of Chinese astronomers, and for ten years they were in contact with their Soviet counterparts. But in 1960, the estrangement between China and the USSR forced them into isolation. Between 1966 and 1976, they were subsequently criticized for practicing a science that was useless to the people. Finally freed from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the world of astronomy was preserved. At the time, China was largely closed to the outside world – to the point that the official press in 1969 refrained from talking about the American expedition to the Moon.

It was at the time of the end of Maoism, in the 1980s, that China began to produce satellites for telecommunications and meteorology, which were able to reach space thanks to the creation of the Long March 3. Like American launchers, the device has has a third stage that uses a high-performance combination of liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

The Chinese space program will then complement and diversify throughout the 1990s with a series of satellites. And in 2003, China sent its first man into space, Yang Liwei, who orbited the Earth fourteen times in twenty-one hours.

The era of cooperation

Throughout this period, the Chinese government has continuously sought to establish technical contacts with the West regarding space research and perspectives. With, among others, France: in January 1997, François Fillon, then Minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Space, traveled to China, during which a cooperation agreement in the area of ​​space was signed. It established, mainly in the field of satellites, the basis for a strategic partnership between the two countries regarding the terms of technology transfer.

Following this, in May 1997, Jacques Chirac signed a Franco-Chinese industrial partnership in Beijing, where space was mentioned. “This agreement will enable fruitful cooperation for satellites as well as for launch vehicles”, the French president had then commented. In the following years, this agreement allowed France, with the National Center for Space Studies (CNES), to collaborate with Chinese engineers to develop small Chinese satellite platforms. earth observation and environmental monitoring.

In the International Space Station, the Americans rub shoulders with the Russians,
Europeans, Japanese and
Canadians. Nothing can compare to
was agreed with Beijing.

In these space matters, however, it is with Russia that China will develop cooperation programs from 1995. Because the Russians retain some Soviet-era technical know-how that could be useful to the Chinese, especially for rockets and satellites.

Moreover, at the end of the 20the century there was no shortage of meetings between Chinese astronomers and American NASA officials. However, the United States quickly became suspicious of China’s possible advances in space travel projects. In the early 2000s, the Americans therefore offered European countries cooperation on space projects. And there are even, since 1998, American astronauts along with Russians, Europeans, Japanese and Canadians in the International Space Station. But nothing comparable to Beijing has been organized.

Competition is raging between China and the US

It is clear that China has caught up and in space it has overtaken Europe and Russia. The US, which has enormous technological capacity and years of experience in reserve, sees it more and more as a competitor. 1eh January 2023, in an interview with the American media Politico, Bill Nelson, the director of NASA, former astronaut aboard the space shuttle Columbia before becoming a senator from Florida, believed that the competition between the United States and China has significantly intensified in recent months.

According to him, for this “space race”the next two years could be decisive. “We must be careful that the Chinese do not recapture a place on the Moon under the guise of scientific research. It is not impossible that they then say: “Stay away, we are here, this is our territory”», he believes in particular. And to add: “If you doubt it, look at what they did to the Spratly Islands”this coral archipelago, in the international waters of the South China Sea, which Beijing has occupied since 2013.

Under these conditions, Bill Nelson believes that his country must quickly build a lunar base. According to NASA plans, therefore, American astronauts should return to the Moon in 2024 before building an inhabited colony there. It is likely that the director of NASA, by warning about China’s conquest activity, is trying to put pressure on politicians so that all these projects are confirmed.

Who will mine the Moon’s soil?

The US also needs to greatly develop its perception of space travel. During the Apollo era, some fifty years ago, the goal was essentially to show the world their technological might and their superiority over the USSR. But today the Chinese see space as a territory where many resources can be exploited.

The lunar debris has shown that the Moon’s soil contains water in the form of ice crystals, but also many other elements. An abundance which could be due to the fact that for billions of years comets and meteorites have regularly hit the Moon.

Beijing intends to exploit all these potential resources at the risk of developing fierce Sino-US competition in the coming decades, the rules of the game remain to be defined. China is preparing for it while making progress in the conquest of space.

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