x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

China shoots for the moon as space ambitions take giant leap

China's space programme will really go into orbit during the next decade as a powerful symbol of the country's growing global influence.

There was a surge of national pride in China when the Shenzhou-9 docked with the Tiangong-1 module 343 kilometres above the Earth. AFP PHOTO / Jiuquan Space Centre
There was a surge of national pride in China when the Shenzhou-9 docked with the Tiangong-1 module 343 kilometres above the Earth. AFP PHOTO / Jiuquan Space Centre

At some point in the second half of this year, China's Chang'e III lunar rover is expected to land on the moon. A small step for man, but a giant step for China, especially in the broader effect on the world's second-largest economy.

China's space programme is shifting from being an exclusively military-focused activity with a propaganda arm to something that can be used to boost innovation and lift national spirits. Space is central to China's ambitions to make the early 21st century an age of space discovery and development.

Success in space is a powerful symbol of China's rising power, of its improving technical expertise, and of the ruling Communist Party's remarkable progress in turning around the fortunes of the once-isolated and impoverished country.

These days, the United States is focused on more earthbound matters, and on exploring distant planets such as Mars. But over the next decade, China's space programme will really go into orbit, as it seeks to reflect its growing economic power with a significant presence in space.

"We're in space, not just making cellphones," the legendary Chinese explorer and president of the China Exploration and Research Society, Wong How Man, told CNN recently.

China's space programme today parallels that of the US more than four decades ago, and has similar goals. Just as the US space programme came of age at a time of major economic expansion in that country, China's outer space ambitions are being outlined as it grows in economic power and global influence.

Last year, there was a surge of national pride when the Shenzhou-9 docked with the Tiangong-1 module 343 kilometres above the Earth, the first time a manned Chinese space flight had carried out the docking.

The crew lived on the module for 10 days, carrying out a number of tasks such as medical tests and experiments, as part of preparations for manning a permanent space station.

The docking was considered a major advance for China's manned space programme's efforts to build a permanent space station by 2020.

Niu Hongguang, the deputy commander-in-chief of China's manned space programme, said a manned programme, Shenzhou 10, would be launched this year with a crew that could include one female and two male astronauts, who are scheduled to enter the Tiangong 1 space lab module.

China is hoping to join the US and Russia as the only countries to send independently maintained space stations into orbit.

It is already one of just three nations to have launched manned spacecraft on their own.

The US has barred China's participation in the 16-country International Space Programme because it is worried about espionage of military secrets. This in some ways is similar to the way corporates worry about intellectual property rights protection.

China is unworried, as it is looking to other partners to meet its ultimate goal - putting a Chinese taikonaut, or astronaut, on the moon. Only the US has achieved that feat, most recently in 1972.

China first launched a man into space in 2003 followed by a two-man mission in 2005 and a three-man trip in 2008 that featured the country's first space walk.

Two years ago, China outlined its ambitions in orbit when it released a government white paper titled "China's Space Activities in 2011". In this, the government said it wanted to take the space programme forward by building space labs and manned spaceships, high-tech satellites and space freighters, by operating space stations, and getting into deep space exploration.

Satellites play a big part in China's space plans. It will build a space infrastructure frame composed of Earth observation satellites, communications and broadcasting satellites, as well as navigation and positioning satellites.

Satellites are a great example of how to profit from space programmes.

Late last year, China opened its domestic satellite navigation network for commercial use across the Asia-Pacific region.

China is selling the Beidou network as an alternative to the US global positioning system and similar satellite-based constellations such as Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System.

"We hope industries based on the Beidou Navigation Satellite System [BDS] will hold 15 to 20 per cent of the market share by 2015," Ran Chengqi, a BDS spokesman who is also the director of the China Satellite Navigation Office, said at the official launch of the system.

Beidou had previously been restricted to the Chinese military and government, but the plan is for Beidou to have a 70 to 80 per cent share of the Chinese market in related location services by 2020.

Beidou has 16 navigation satellites in operation and the target is for this number to reach 35 by 2020 to become a global GPS service.

China launched the first satellite for BDS in 2000, and a preliminary version of the system has been used in traffic control, weather forecasting and disaster relief work on a trial basis since 2003.

The Chinese are keen to ease fears that they are planning to expand their presence in outer space for military reasons. The 2011 white paper specifically states that China opposes the weaponisation of outer space, or any kind of arms race in space.

China has engaged in 12 bilateral cooperative mechanisms within intergovernmental frameworks, and exported communications satellites to Nigeria, Venezuela and Pakistan, and has also contracted with countries including Bolivia, Belarus, Indonesia and Laos, to export satellites.