If U.S. restrictions on supplying space technology to China were meant to arrest the Asian giant's astronautical development, there is precious little sign of success.
From a forthcoming family of advanced launchers to a manned space program, lunar exploration and an indigenous navigation system, China shows every indication of relentless progress in space. The same holds true for the other “BRIC” nations—Brazil, Russia and India—that have generally developed their space capabilities without U.S. help.
Clearly, China would like access to U.S. spaceflight capabilities, above all because most space technology has military as well as civil applications. But for the vast majority of space activities, its space industry is progressing very well, whatever the restrictions of the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
ITAR “has not worked and it is counterproductive,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and long-time critic of the trade regime. “The rest of the world is perfectly willing to work with China, and China has advanced relatively far indigenously. What they cannot do, they can buy.”
Germany helped China with communications spacecraft and Britain with microsatellites, for example. The Chinese space program's life support systems are based on Russian models. Johnson-Freese thinks that, instead of pointlessly refusing to cooperate with China in any space technology, the U.S. “should build very high fences around very few things”— capabilities that are a U.S. monopoly, for instance.
Highlighting China's progress despite ITAR in the next few years will be the fielding of a family of modern launchers. For decades, China has relied on descendants of its early ballistic missiles that burn hydrazine, a fuel with many drawbacks, including high toxicity and poor efficiency, but with the advantage of simplifying engine design. The new rockets—Long March 5, 7 and 6, in descending order of size—all use kerosene as a fuel, with hydrogen for the core stage of the largest.
Drawing on a clean sheet of paper and, evidently, a lot of funding, the Chinese industry is jumping ahead of competitors by building similar or identical propulsion modules for a large range of throw-weights, 0.5-25 tons to low Earth orbit. Airframe sections of three standard diameters are matched with mostly shared powerplants, primarily the YF-100 kerosene engine. (There is some confusion about the payload range for the new family, however, since the Long March 6 is officially stated as capable of lofting 1 ton to a sun-synchronous orbit.)
The Long March 7, which may become China's future human-rated launcher, is due to fly next year; a delay from 2013 was announced in March. The first flight of the Long March 5 was also put back from 2013 to no earlier than 2015. Progress on the Long March 6 has closely tracked the Long March 7.
The inability of ITAR to keep China from developing the YF-100 is underlined if, as is sometimes reported, the engine is based on the Russian RD-120. Officials say that like the RD-120, it uses staged combustion. At sea level, the engine has achieved a 305-sec. specific impulse figure that impresses foreign rocket engineers—and is another reminder that China can achieve a great deal without U.S. cooperation. Staged combustion is also used for the 18-ton-thrust kerosene second-stage engine of Long March 7.
Still, with a thrust of 120 metric tons (260,000 lb.), the YF-100 is not a very large engine. Engineers of China's Academy of Aerospace Propulsion Technology—Li Ping, Li Bin and Yu Zou—emphasized in a paper published last year that China was still behind in space propulsion. Their proposal, probably representing official thinking, is to develop the largest kerosene-oxygen rocket that China could use commercially—with up to three times the thrust of the YF-100—and then give it double combustion chambers to create an engine twice as large again. This, it appears, is China's path to propulsion for a Moon rocket.
A variety of small launchers also are proposed or under development. One, the Long March 11, was identified this year. It uses solid fuel, another dual-use technology that can be applied to military systems such as the anti-satellite weapon demonstrated in January 2007 (AW&ST Feb. 12, 2007, p. 20).
The U.S. government still considers spacecraft and launch vehicles as weapons, regardless of how they are used. But it is moving away from that position with a set of export-control reforms designed to rationalize what many see as an irrational system, particularly in the commercial-space arena (see page 52).
“[T]he United States is no longer the sole source of key items and technologies,” said Thomas Kelly of the's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in congressional testimony last April. “Today, cutting-edge technologies are developed far more rapidly than 40 or 50 years ago, in places far beyond our borders. Many U.S. companies must collaborate with foreign companies to develop, produce and sustain leading-edge military hardware and technology if they are to survive as viable businesses.”
China's space program is the best funded and most ambitious among the BRIC nations. All have developed solid space programs with little or no U.S. help, and have worked together to mutual benefit.
Brazil is already a hot market for commercial communications satellites, with its Star One, the largest satellite-fleet operator in Latin America (AW&ST Aug. 19, p. 17). Brazil buys its satellites from the U.S. and Europe, and launches them abroad as well. But after many fits and starts, it is preparing to begin using its 30-year-old Alcantara launch center on its north coast to launch a new variant of the Soviet-era Cyclone rockets manufactured in Ukraine by the Yuzhnoye State Design Office.
The arrangement, to be outlined at the upcoming International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, gives the Ukrainian government access to Alcantara for its missions and sets up a joint commercial launch services operation called Alcantara Cyclone Space.
At 2.3 deg. N. Lat., the launch facility is even closer to the Equator than Europe's facility at Kourou, French Guiana. From Alcantara, the joint venture's Cyclone 4—with a new upper stage engine—should be able to put 5,685 kg. (12,500 lb.) into a circular low Earth orbit at 200 km (124 mi.), and 1,600 kg into geostationary transfer orbit. By launching over the open Atlantic to the north, the rocket is designed to deliver a 3,910-kg spacecraft to a 400-km sun-synchronous orbit.
However, launches with U.S.-built satellites will not be able to start until the Brazilian senate ratifies a technical-services agreement with the U.S. State Department.
While Brazil moves ahead in partnership with Ukraine, Russia's space industry is going through some hard times. A series of well-publicized launch failures with the Proton and Rokot launchers has brought down the Kremlin's wrath on Russian space executives over quality-control practices, and the Russian-owned Sea Launch venture—which uses Ukrainian Zenit rockets—has also had its troubles returning from U.S. bankruptcy protection (AW&ST March 18, p. 54).
Despite the trouble with its Soviet-heritage launchers, Russia is moving ahead with a new domestic cosmodrome at Vostochny in the far-eastern Amur region. Meanwhile, the Khrunichev Space Center shipped the first flight model of the lightweight Angara 1.2 rocket to the northern Plesetsk Cosmodrome in May in preparation for its inaugural launch next year.
The Angara family is a new generation of modular rockets that has been in development at Moscow-based Khrunichev since the mid-1990s. Based on the liquid oxygen/kerosene-powered URM-1 Common Core Booster (CCB), the Angara product line is designed to carry payloads weighing 3,800-35,000 kg to low Earth orbit. A single CCB will power the Angara 1.2, while the heavy-lift Angara A7 will require up to seven boosters. Khrunichev says it is also continuing work on the heavy-lift Angara A5 launch vehicle, which it expects to ship to Plesetsk in November.
Political isolation has long forced India to go it alone on satellites and launch vehicles. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has two medium-lift launch vehicles in operation and a fleet of relatively sophisticated indigenous communications satellites built with some foreign help but as much Indian content as possible.
The saga of its latest launch attempt is emblematic of the approach. Launch of the GSAT-14 communications bird on a Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) was scrubbed Aug. 19 when the second stage started leaking its hypergolic propellant. The third stage, carrying the cryogenic engine India is developing to end its reliance on Russia for critical space hardware, was undamaged, but the rocket had to be destacked, and the second stage will be rebuilt.
The satellite is one of the largest India has tried to launch itself rather than with what ISRO calls a “procured launcher” like the Ariane 5. Built by ISRO's Satellite Center on the agency's 2-ton I-2K bus, GSAT-14 carries six extended C-band transponders, 6 Ku-band transponders and two experimental Ka-band “beacons” to test propagation of signals in that frequency band.
The leaky hypergolic stage is powered by the Vikas engine, which also powers the four strap-on boosters of the GSLV Mk. II. The first stage is solid-fueled, while the upper-stage engine is a domestic replacement for the Russian power plant used in the past.
The gas-generator cycle Indian engine is designed to deliver 73.55 kN in vacuum (16,534 lb. thrust), but it has yet to fly. A turbopump failed during its first flight test, taking an experimental satellite with it. The Russian engine has performed well, but overall the GSLV has fallen short of its predecessor—the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that has achieved 23 consecutive launch successes. By comparison, four of the past 10 GSLV launches have failed.
With Maxim Pyadushkin in Moscow.