“I gave that same paper at Innsbruck in 1986,” said a bemused European rocket engineer at the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Beijing, after a presentation on the Long March 2F rocket. The 2F has delivered 10 Chinese “taikonauts”—and the Tiangong 1 mini-station—to orbit over the past decade, two of them twice.

The European's remark sums up the present situation in China's ambitious game of space-exploration catch-up. Its engineers have caught up with Europe when Europe was 20 years behind the space-racing superpowers. But by 2020 or a little thereafter, when the International Space Station (ISS) may be on its last legs, Chinese space managers expect to have a Mir-class space station in orbit. There is a fair chance that Europe and at least one of the original spacefaring nations, Russia, will have contributed to its construction.

As was the case with the Cold War space powers, China's leaders are using human spaceflight to signal the world—and the long-suffering Chinese people—that Beijing's state-capitalism approach has won modern superpower status for their ancient society. The new Chinese space station—also to be called Tiangong (Heavenly Palace)—will be open to all comers, a Chinese-led version of the ISS that merged the two Cold War superpowers' manned space programs (AW&ST Sept. 30, p. 24).

But there is more to space than taikonauts—a made-up English term only recently adopted in Chinese space circles to give its spacefarers equal footing in English with astronauts and Russia's cosmonauts. Chinese companies are working hard to add spacecraft components to the nation's flood of exports, even as the U.S. tries to ease International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) designed to keep its own technology out of Chinese hands (AW&ST Sept. 16, p. 50).

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force Space Command uneasily monitors a constellation of three maneuvering Chinese satellites launched July 19 with no fanfare, trying to determine their military utility. And the U.S. lawmakers who block cooperative space programs with China on human-rights and national-security grounds cite as evidence of the threat from China the 2007 anti-satellite test (ASAT) that created the largest single space debris cloud in history (AW&ST Feb. 12, 2007, p. 20).

China's leaders live in a secure compound near the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing and may be even less visible to public scrutiny than the dynastic emperors who occupied that sprawling palace. Understanding their motivation for actions like the ASAT test, which came as Chinese diplomats prepared for an international meeting in Vienna on space debris mitigation, can be as tricky as Cold War Kremlinology (see page 56). But China-watching is an old academic discipline in the West, and its practitioners have a pretty clear idea of what is behind China's space activities.

“The top government leaders, decision-makers, people who are in charge of the various space programs at various levels, see space as an area of disproportionately important investment,” says Andrew Erickson, a China specialist at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “There's been a widespread consensus in China, pretty much since the founding of the People's Republic of China and the early Mao years—but now I think much more realistic and grounded in resources and sustainable program development—that to be the sort of independent, great power with comprehensive national capabilities that China wants to be and increasingly is, China needs robust space capabilities across the board.”

Like the rest of the world, China does not have enough money to do everything its engineers would like to do in space. Ge Chang-Chun, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is a researcher in space solar power (SSP), says his nation's human spaceflight and robotic Moon-exploration programs are gaining most of the civil-space funding today.

The Chinese government has heard Ge's arguments for SSP as a solution to the country's energy and clean-air needs and has granted some support. But that support falls short of the level that would be needed to begin operational power generation in the 2030s, as Ge and his colleagues believe is feasible. Even with China's perceived deep pockets, SSP is not the only ambitious space project sitting on the back burner there.

Technical presentations at the annual IAC usually afford a good idea of worldwide trends in space exploration. China took advantage of the Beijing session this year to expand its presence in international space circles, offering hundreds of papers that show a range of space activity that has not always been apparent. The work showcased makes clear that China is active in most of the same areas as the rest of the spacefaring world, with the Moon and Mars clearly set as first-order exploration goals.

China is pushing ahead with its third robotic mission to the Moon, planning to launch Chang'e-3 before the end of the year with a lander/rover combination on board. The flight will build on the success of Chang'e-2, which expanded China's envelope by leaving lunar orbit for visits to the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point and an approach to the asteroid 4179 Toutatis within 800 meters (2,625 ft.), which required sophisticated navigation, four course corrections and China's first use of X-band communications for deep-space missions.

“Based on the innovative design, overall demonstration, elaborate implementation, usage of residual propellant, Chang'e-2 explored Moon, L2 point and then Toutatis asteroid, realizing the international-level exploration of multiple objectives and multiple missions, while achieving the purpose of 'faster, better, cheaper,' which was far beyond our expectations,” said Huang Jiangchuan, who led the IAC presentation on the mission.

Chang'e-3 will continue China's push for advanced technologies and operational techniques in robotic exploration. Based on Chinese publications, U.S. analyst Dwayne Day believes the lander/rover will be solar-powered but will use radioisotope heaters to protect its electronics during the lunar nighttime. The rover will be teleoperated by drivers in China who are training for the job with simulations built up from digital maps available for the Bay of Rainbows landing site by adding “craters and rocks on it randomly,” according to Peng Deyun of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center.

Mars is the ultimate destination, for China and the other human-spaceflight nations today. Russia left China's piggyback Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter stranded in Earth orbit along with the Phobos Grunt probe after its Nov. 8, 2011, launch on a Zenit 2-SB rocket, but planning continues in China on a number of fronts for red planet exploration.

Some concepts for human missions to Mars were presented at the IAC, but nearer-term robotic spaceflight was a key area of focus. One concept presented by Beijing's Qian Xuesen Laboratory of Space Technology called for a “plural mode” mission that would combine an orbiter and rover with three surface penetrators and a balloon carrying instruments for in-situ atmospheric research.

Set for launch in 2024 on the planned Long March 5 rocket from the new launch center being built on Hainan Island (see photo, page 52), the mission would target the Nilosyrtis Mensae region where clays discovered from orbit make it a promising site for evidence of past life. Gale Crater, where NASA's Curiosity rover is operating, is a backup landing site in the Chinese plans.

Scientists at Beihang University in Beijing are working on a concept to send a small piggyback satellite into Mars orbit “hitching” on a larger spacecraft that would image the planet's surface. The Chinese experts calculate that, once jettisoned into an elliptical orbit around Mars, the secondary spacecraft could image the moon Deimos during more than 280 flybys over a service life available in the 2016 Earth-Mars planetary launch window. It could also work with the main spacecraft on studies of the planet's atmosphere, according to the Beihang paper.

Chinese researchers are also investigating dust removal from surface-vehicle solar arrays; advanced navigation for entry, descent and landing on Mars; and a concept for formation-flying a constellation of linked smallsats in a fractionated approach to orbital observation of Mars.

While China's human spaceflight program remains focused on launching, building and operating the planned Tiangong space station in the coming decade, the nation is clearly interested in deep-space human exploration, as evidenced by IAC presentations. Near-term, researchers at the Lanzhou Institute of Physics are examining different ways to seal lunar samples for return to Earth, mindful of the difficulty with sample seals caused by abrasive lunar dust during the Apollo landings.

For the longer term, Chinese scientists and engineers are looking into human-factors issues of long-term spaceflight, including both life sciences and psychology. A group from the Astronaut Research and Training Center of China presented partial results on reaction-time testing from the Shenzhou 9 mission, while researchers outlined mood effects on the crew of the Mars 500 analog experiment in Moscow, which included a Chinese subject. Experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been conducting ground-based experiments designed to simulate space radiation to better understand its effects.

“[D]ata of space environment effects and psychological changes will be systematically collected and accumulated, a human system risk evaluation system will be established more perfectly, and innovative protection techniques will be developed,” stated Li Yinghui, of the Astronaut Research and Training Center. “Therefore, it will facilitate the theoretical and technical reserves for long-term spaceflight and promote the unceasing development of manned spaceflight projects.”

Proceedings at the IAC indicated the wide range of space-research activities underway in China: an intelligent remote sensor for deep-space exploration that can automatically adjust for conditions too ephemeral for long-distance commands to capture; an interior free-flyer to isolate microgravity experiments from space station vibrations; the use of Tai Chi training to mitigate space-environment effects on brain function; and the use of a hybrid rocket burning hydroxyl terminated polybutadiene as fuel to ignite a scramjet in a rocket-based, combined-cycle propulsion system for lower-cost space launch.

Like NASA, a handful of commercial companies and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Chinese engineers are studying the use of robotics for on-orbit spacecraft servicing, refueling and recycling. Students at the School of Aerospace Engineering at the Beijing Institute of Technology are proposing a concept that would base robotic servicing spacecraft at a space station, where they would await calls and return for replenishment.

Aerospace Dongfanghong Development Ltd., based in Shenzhen, has developed a concept for a “micro-satellite swarm robot servicing system” of five small spacecraft. One would serve as a communications hub, two would monitor ongoing work and two—equipped with pairs of robotic arms—would handle the teleoperated servicing.

The company made no secret that it is drawing heavily on work presented at other public international conferences and in technical publications from the U.S. and Japan. Moreover, top officials of China's human spaceflight organization met their counterparts from Europe, Russia and Canada at the IAC to push an agenda of international cooperation.

Notably absent from the talks were NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Naoki Okumura, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Bolden is barred by Congress from holding bilateral talks with China, while Japan is in a quasi-military confrontation with China over three uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that may have oil and gas deposits.

“China, as a responsible country, would like to make more positive contributions to peaceful use of outer space,” says Wang Zhaoyao, director general of the China Manned Space Agency, which publicized the talks on its website.

Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, has visited China officially as NASA administrator and toured its human spaceflight facilities. But while he is allowed to attend multilateral gatherings such as the IAC in China, he apparently has been careful to avoid one-on-one talks with Chinese officials since Congress prohibited them in the 2011 NASA spending bill.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending, and a sharp critic of China's leadership on human rights and other grounds, reiterated his position Oct. 8 in a six-page letter to Bolden on the subject.

“In addition to the myriad human rights and religious freedom abuses described [in the letter], there are serious concerns about widespread espionage against the U.S., including NASA, as well as recent developments in China's space warfare program,” Wolf wrote.

Among officials meeting Wang and Yang Liwei, who flew China's first human space mission a decade ago, were Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), and Sergey Saveliev, deputy head of Russian space agency Roscosmos and the highest-ranking Russian space official at the Beijing congress. ESA and Roscosmos have already agreed to joint robotic Mars exploration in 2016-18, and in Beijing their leaders agreed to pursue three-way robotic and human cooperation with China, according to the Chinese agency.

Ukraine, which retains key Soviet-era space-industry assets, including the Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash launch-vehicle complex, also has held space-cooperation talks with China and hopes to reopen old business ties with Beijing in that arena. “People forget that the Chinese space program was based on Soviet technologies,” says Yuri Alexseyev, chairman of the State Space Agency of Ukraine.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for a look at the planned Chinese space station, or go to AviationWeek.com/tiangong