Updated Jan 26, 2018

How China plans to pull ahead in the space race

Erica Pandey, author of @Work

A Chinese cargo rocket moves from the testing center to the launch pad. Photo by Sun Hao / VCG via Getty

In the past decade, China has steadily poured money into the research and development arm of its national space organization, eclipsing Russia and emerging as the United States' top competitor in the international space race.

The bottom line: The second 50 years of the Space Age will be marked by China's international leadership role in space.

That's how much the space race has changed, Jim Head, professor of planetary geosciences at Brown University, tells Axios. As the United States' space priorities are interrupted — and redirected — by changing political leadership, China's government has the capacity to set long-term goals for development in space and back them with massive amounts of funding.

China's ambitions

China's highest priority is to build a basic infrastructure — systems the U.S. already has in place — to access and use space, according to Gregory Kulacki, a China expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit research organization of scientists and engineers. "The heart of investments [is] going to be in the normal run of the mill things" like navigations, communications and scientific satellites, he says.

But international cooperation has limits. "The U.S. has done everything it can to make sure China is excluded from the International Space Station," Kulacki says. And U.S. "hostility" towards China's space program has stalled technological partnerships with European countries, he says.

China's solution? Make its space program an undeniable force to be reckoned with on the international stage. China is working toward a basic infrastructure, but it's also competing with the U.S.'s scientific and technological advances in space.

  • To the moon: China is planning to go to the far side of the moon in 2018 — a mission that has never been done before — and bring back sample moon rocks. Beyond the implications for scientific research, the mission would enhance China's international profile and show the world how far they've come, Notre Dame engineering professor Clive Neal says.
  • Quantum communications: China is trying to become an international leader in using the behavior of particles of light to send information securely via quantum-enabled satellites in space, Axios' Alison Snyder reports. The feasibility of establishing quantum communications networks remains to be seen, but there hasn't been a commitment to develop the technology at this scale until now.
Make Space Great Again

President Trump signed a policy directive in December 2017 to send Americans back to the moon for the first time since 1972. The move followed a speech by Vice President Mike Pence at the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, revived by the Trump administration in 2017. "America seemed to have lost its edge in space. Those days are over," Pence said.

Reality check: It's debatable that the U.S. has fallen behind in the space race. Although the China National Space Agency and the European Space Agency have made progress, NASA is still at the helm of the majority of space exploration missions.

The U.S.'s ambitions, per Pence, include establishing a base on the moon "to build the foundation to send Americans to Mars and beyond." The U.S. is also prioritizing defense spending in space to combat anti-satellite technologies being developed by Russia and China, which has "an active R&D looking at anti-satellite techniques," Kulacki says.

Russia after Sputnik

Russia has fallen behind since the Cold War era when "space was a key area of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union," per the AP's Vladimir Isachenkov.

"Six decades after Sputnik, a refined version of the rocket that put the first artificial satellite in orbit remains the mainstay of Russia’s space program — a stunning tribute to the country’s technological prowess, but also a sign it has failed to build upon its achievements," Isachenkov writes.

In 2016, Russia launched seven satellites, compared to China's 19. As of October, Russia had launched 116 satellites into space since 2007 and China, 188. The U.S. is still far ahead of both nations with 553 satellites launched in that period.

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