China’s Sense of Direction

The most important development in the global space sector in the past 20 years has been the spectacular increase in Chinese spending on rockets large and small, an astronaut corps, satellites for science, Earth observation, telecommunications and navigation, export sales — the works.

For the coming decade, one of the most important trends to watch will be how historically inward-focused China uses its new status to integrate itself into the global space community.

As the United States and Russia have shown, space can be a nice way to develop trust and build confidence, but also an excellent way to sow fear and distrust.

China has become an indispensable member of the World Weather Watch network, which disseminates meteorological data. Some members of the U.S. Congress don’t want tomorrow’s weather forecast if it comes from a Chinese satellite, but the rest of the world is happy to have China carrying its weight alongside the United States, Europe, Japan and Russia on the world’s behalf.

There are two other areas where China can make a real contribution as a partner to the established space powers: space debris and global positioning, navigation and timing.

A Long March 3C rocket lifts off June 12 carrying Beidou G7 satellite. China has now launched 23 Beidou satellites as it works to expand its satellite navigation system from its current regional coverage to full global coverage by 2020. Credit: Hina News Service

A Long March 3C rocket lifts off June 12 carrying Beidou G7 satellite. China has now launched 23 Beidou satellites as it works to expand its satellite navigation system from its current regional coverage to full global coverage by 2020. Credit: Hina News Service

It’s been nine years since a Chinese ground-based missile blew apart a retired Chinese meteorological satellite, creating a debris field that will be with us for decades.

Since this event — which China may or may not regret, depending on who is asked — China has raised its profile as a member of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee.

At recent conferences of experts, Chinese representatives went further than ever in describing their program to passivate satellites and rocket upper stages to prevent in-orbit explosions. They have also talked about specific satellites they have moved into retirement orbits outside the satellite traffic lanes, and their plans to deorbit low-Earth-orbit spacecraft.

There is still a long way to go on the road to transparency. And in China — as in the United States and Russia — the forward-leaning statements made by officials attending international forums do not constitute policy commitments for their counterparts on the military side. But measurable progress is worth noting.

On positioning, navigation and timing, China’s BeiDou network is the next big proving ground for Chinese intentions on international collaboration. BeiDou managers have already provided an inter face control document to permit non- Chinese users to work with the network.

The global service is to start in 2020, the same year Europe’s Galileo navigation system should be fully built and in orbit.

That will make four global constellations, with more than 100 satellites in medium-Earth orbit in addition to the geostationary-orbit overlays, from the United States, Russia, Europe and China.

How the medium-Earth-orbit satellites will be disposed of given the proximity of other constellations is a question for another day. The more immediate question is whether China will adopt regulations to maximize global customer benefit, or use regulations only as a way to sell BeiDou-compatible equipment.

China this month issued a white paper on BeiDou that made all the right noises about system interoperability and compatibility and the fact that the basic Open Service would be free of charge.

Think of your GPS device as being four times more likely to send correct coordinates. If China can set an example and use its influence to assure that the four systems constitute a global utility almost as important as weather forecasts, everyone wins.