China’s move to cis-lunar space

Since China launched its Shenzhou-11 manned crewed spacecraft to dock with the Tiangong-2 space lab, speculation about where China’s space program is heading has only grown.

Various Chinese officials have been quoted suggesting Beijing may pursue human missions to the moon and Mars. Those efforts were given a boost witht the successful,  long-awaited Nov. 3 test launch of Long March 5, China’s new heavy-launch vehicle.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are proceeding with their efforts at lunar exploration. At present, it is expected that the Chang’e-4 mission will be launched in 2018. This will entail landing a rover on the far side of the moon to take samples. While the side of the moon permanently facing away from Earth has been photographed, no one has ever landed there. This will be a major first in terms of lunar exploration.

In the course of undertaking this mission, China will also be deploying a relay satellite, necessary in order to communicate with the lander. Reports indicate that this is currently expected to be a communications satellite deployed to the L2 Lagrangian point, a spot farthest from Earth on a line connecting the sun and Earth. China had previously routed the Chang’e-2 lunar probe through the L2 point.

The deployment of a relay satellite to L2 will mark the first deployment of a communications or relay satellite to a Lagrangian point. Other residents of these key points in space (where the overlapping gravitational fields of the Earth, moon, and sun allow a satellite to maintain a fairly stable position) are largely scientific satellites such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite.

Such a development is a major feat, and demonstrates the ability of the Chinese space community to innovate.

At the same time, however, it also should serve as a caution. China is demonstrating that the most valuable real estate in space is no longer limited to the geostationary belt. Instead, Beijing is indicating that it intends to establish a foothold for its space systems at the Lagrangian points and elsewhere in cis-lunar space, the region between the geostationary belt and the moon. As important, it will be deploying not only scientific payloads, but more-immediately useful systems as well.

Such efforts have strategic implications.

Cis-lunar stomping grounds

Like satellites in geostationary orbit, systems placed at the Lagrangian points can have extended lifespans, as they do not expend fuel in order to remain in position. Thus, Chinese satellites deployed there can function so long as they have power — and China is also working on servicing satellites that will allow the refueling and repair of systems.

Even more important, however, the opening of cis-lunar space will expand significantly the volume of space that will have to be monitored and observed. It may be possible to “lose” satellites and other systems deployed beyond geostationary orbit, especially if they maintain a low profile (e.g., minimal output).

Conversely, objects coming from cis-lunar space will also be less likely to be detected. Thus far, the focus of avoiding conjunction events has been on tracking debris and satellites from geostationary orbit inwards. However, a payload coming from beyond geostationary would, again, have a substantial volume of space within which to operate — and may come from different angles than commonly presumed.

The cis-lunar region might therefore offer a convenient location for not only operating communications satellites, but in-orbit spares and reserves, to replace damaged or lost systems. For key systems such as strategic communications satellites, missile-early-warning systems and meteorological systems, it may be useful to deploy additional satellites beyond the geosynchronous belt, allowing the constellations to be more resilient in the event of conflict.

As important, in the longer run, it might serve as a useful region to consider deploying anti-satellite systems. A direct-ascent, anti-geosynchronous satellite system would still take several hours to reach its target from Earth, potentially allowing time for evasion or even interception. But anti-satellite systems lying dormant in the region beyond geosynchronous orbit could reach their targets in less time, or at least be less likely to be detected.

Ironically, the Chinese are expanding their operations to cis-lunar space at almost the same time that the United States has publicized its Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. GSSAP was intended to allow the U.S. to characterize satellites in the geosynchronous region, and has been characterized as the equivalent of a “neighborhood watch.” China’s ability to exploit the cis-lunar region may effectively outflank that effort.

A combination of efforts, including direct ascent, co-orbital, and cis-lunar systems, as well as cyber and other soft-kill measures, could prove highly effective at establishing what Chinese strategists term the “space dominance” necessary for fighting and winning “local wars under informationized conditions.”

It would behoove American analysts to carefully observe the activities of China’s newest military service, the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, which is assuming control of space, network, and electronic warfare efforts. This new service will be looking for synergies among these various elements in establishing “information dominance,” a longstanding focus for the People’s Liberation Army, and considered a keystone for winning future conflicts.


Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.