Coordinating China’s satellite constellations

A new era in the space race begins

Tristan Kenderdine

Belt and Road, Trade and industry, Science and technology | Asia, East Asia

20 July 2017

China is rapidly gaining ground to close the satellite technology gap. Tristan Kenderdine looks at the likely trajectory for the country’s space race.

The Satellite Navigation Regulations will legalise China’s strategic positioning in the satellite navigation sector and facilitate the application and industrial development of the Beidou Navigation Satellite System (BNS). Beidou is China’s domestic answer to the US’ Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema (GLONASS) and Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GALILEO). The new regulations are among a host of other peripheral legislative affairs being pursued as the development of China’s space communications strategy gathers pace.

To ensure communications along its Belt and Road project, China is planning to launch satellites to cover Central Asia, the Middle East and greater Eurasia.

New launches will begin in 2018 with China pushing the expansion and development of satellite technology, particularly ground stations, in countries along the route. To build a global satellite navigation system that will rival GPS, China aims to launch 18 satellites to expand network coverage and enhance system performance. China has also cooperated with a number of countries and regional alliances, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, ASEAN, and the Arab League, on technology exchange, technology transfer and training, systems performance monitoring, and high-precision application services development.

To build a global satellite navigation system that will rival GPS, China aims to launch 18 satellites to expand network coverage and enhance system performance. China has also cooperated with a number of countries and regional alliances, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia, ASEAN, and the Arab League, on technology exchange, technology transfer and training, systems performance monitoring, and high-precision application services development.

A relatively comprehensive domestic industrial chain has been completed for the first stage of market development for the BNS, including basic navigation products, application terminals and operational services. Commercial applications of the BNS are set to follow in mass consumption areas such as communication, transport, emergency response, smartphones and car navigation. An intelligent information industrial cluster is to be formed by combining smart cities, big data, networking, cloud computing, and mobile Internet. Mergers, together with the integration of small players in the industrial chain, are expected to help the industry successfully develop.

More on this: From space-based solar power to mining asteroids for resources: China’s plans for the final frontier

But China’s satellite ambitions extend beyond the terrestrial. Alongside the development of orbit-to-ground satellite communications networks, the Chinese scientific bureaucracy is working to construct a marine underwater monitoring observation system and parallel networks of submarine communications cables.

The National Satellite Ocean Application Service is developing a floating ‘ground station’ system in order to construct a maritime-based satellite system and support China’s wider maritime interests.

China also aims to build and improve its marine disaster forecasting and early warning systems and to accelerate and improve its underwater observation system.

The planned marine underwater observation system is likely to be developed along similar lines to those used in aerospace engineering, with the whole national industrial infrastructure behind it. Participation in the global ARGO project gives China the technological capacity to expand and set up its own underwater monitoring system. Such capacity building is crucial as China’s current underwater technology is almost exclusively manufactured abroad, being forced to import many underwater instruments.

China has, in recent years, increased its offshore and underwater industrial presence with facilities and equipment to expand its capacity for seabed mining, deep-sea hydrocarbon drilling, for the establishment of deep-sea stations and submarine energy transmission.

The US and Europe still dominate the physical submarine cable communications network. China, therefore, will continue to lay a parallel system of submarine fibre-optic cables to ensure access to intercontinental Internet infrastructure.

China has already laid an intercontinental cable between South America and Africa but faces a host of United States dominated fibre-optic networks in its near sea territories. National domestic cybersecurity and the triple bloc of outer space, international seabed and polar regions are considered important non-inhabited geographies under the 2015 National Security Law.

More on this: How realistic are China’s outer space ambitions?

The 100 National Science and Technology Research Projects also have a clear aerospace agenda and reveal future industrial space policy trajectories. The first and second priorities are aircraft engines and gas turbines, as well as deep-space stations. Also in the top ten are deep space exploration and putting space vehicles into orbit, developing servicing and maintenance systems and earth integrated information networks. Other space technology research projects in the top 50 include: the accelerated development of large aircraft, development of a new generation of heavy launch vehicles, satellites, space platforms and new payload technologies; commercial applications of remote sensing satellites; and the construction of high-speed, large-capacity optical communication transmission systems.

The immediate objective of China’s space program is centred neither on manned space flight nor on resource extraction but rather on establishing the satellite networks necessary for orbit-to-ground communications and later orbit-to-deep space communications. China’s space program is designed to close technology gaps with the United States and Europe.

However, as China sets its sights on deep-space stations and exploration, it’s important that the country ensures that it works with NASA and the ESA to make the scientific achievements of one accessible for the use of all. We are witnessing a time of competing state-sponsored capitalist interests in space. The space race is becoming mercantilist and China is setting the pace.

A challenge for the world’s policymakers is to shift thinking towards uninhabited geography: outer space, cyberspace, the subsurface of our oceans and the poles.

We are entering a new period of institutional rule setting where the balance of legitimacy is re-centring on the Eastern Hemisphere. Any growth in the outer space and submarine human communications network should be welcomed, but it should be standardised for the benefit of humanity, not reserved as the tool of any single nation state. If we consider the global benefits of interconnected and interoperable satellite and submarine communication networks against the alternative, insular state-controlled networks working in opposition to each other, it is clear which course will deliver the bigger wins from this race.

This piece is based on the author’s article in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies, China’s Industrial Policy, Strategic Emerging Industries and Space Law.

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