Space: China Does It All For Pride And Riches

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November 25, 2014: On October 31st a Chinese spacecraft returned after circling the moon and taking photos. This was the first round trip to the moon by a Chinese spacecraft but it was not the first Chinese visit to the moon. In late 2013 a Chinese spacecraft safely landed on the moon and a rover-type vehicle left the lander and began exploring. This sort of thing was a first for China and the source of much popular pride.

Pride is also the main reason for the Chinese manned space program. Chinese Taikonauts (Taik is the Chinese word for outer space) were in training in the late 1990s for a first manned flight that was planned for 2000 but did not take place until late 2003. So far ten Chinese citizens have gone into space, one of them a woman. The first Chinese manned space vehicle was the Shenzhou capsule. It was crude by American standards and was more similar in capabilities and design to the later versions of the Russian Soyuz or American Gemini. Both of these were 1960s designs. The Chinese want to be seen on par with the U.S., Russia, and the EU when it comes to manned space operations and is putting a lot of talent and money into it.

But the real business of space, and where the Chinese put most of their efforts, in satellites. The Chinese have noted that since the 1980s space satellites have become big business. As of 2012 there were about 1,000 active satellites in orbit, and nearly half of them were American. The number of satellites has been going down a bit since then because individual satellites last longer and can do more. It is expected that the number of satellites will now start to rise rapidly because of the popularity of mini-satellites (under 100 kg/220 pounds). Some of these mini-sats are much smaller (under ten kg) and still useful. In some cases dozens of mini-sats are put into orbit by one launcher.

About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military. Most of them are commercial, the rest government non-military birds. Since 2001 satellite industry revenues more than doubled, from $86 billion (in 2014 dollars) a year to over $200 billion now. The cost of the satellites is less than ten percent of annual satellite revenues. About four percent of the money comes from launching all those satellites and 36 percent of those launches are military. The U.S. has about a third of the launch business, mainly because of the requirement that U.S. classified satellites be launched by American rockets. About half the satellite launches (and two-thirds of the satellites) were for communications, which generates the most income (mostly for TV, followed by data). The U.S. remains the major manufacturer of commercial satellites, with over half of the market. China sees opportunity in all this.

In 1957 the Russian Sputnik was the first satellite ever put in orbit. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, ten other nations have done the same. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971, and India in 1980. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. Ukraine did so in 1995. Iran claims to have put a satellite in orbit recently, but there is no conclusive proof. North Korea put a dead (non-responsive) satellite up in December 2012 and South Korea followed with a successful launch of a very active satellite a month later.

In 2013 China launched 20 satellites and by the end of the decade expect to have 200 satellites in orbit (about a fifth of the total and nearly half as many as the United States). At that point China expects to be launching 30 satellites a year and accounting for over a quarter of the worldwide launch capability. All this momentum has been the result of three decades of effort and an enormous spurt of activity since 2010. In the two decades after 1990 China carried out 30 commercial satellite launches, putting 36 satellites in orbit. Now China puts that many satellites up in 18 months.

China's main satellite launcher, the "Long March" rocket, is based on Russian designs, meaning it is simple, cheap and reliable. This has made China a major player in the satellite launching business. China competes on price. The U.S. Space Shuttle was retired because it was the most expensive way get stuff into orbit. Satellites sent up via the Space Shuttle cost $25 million a ton. The Russians and Chinese will do it for $3-6 million a ton. But insurance can more than double that cost if there have been a number of recent failures with Russian and Chinese boosters. This keeps more reliable American and European boosters in business. The Long March has a failure rate of about six percent, which was a little higher than twice the rate for the most used Russian launcher. The Space Shuttle failure rate was two percent, as were most Western satellite launchers.

 The Chinese Long March can put 9.5 tons in low earth orbit and 5.5 tons in a high one (geostationary transfer orbit). The Chinese took their time to perfect Long March, requiring 28 years to make the first fifty launches, and nine years for the next fifty. So far, Long March has carried out over 170 launches.

 

 


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