China’s Ambitious Plans to Dominate Cislunar Space

China’s Yutu 2 rover drives off the Chang’e-4 lander. (Credit: CNSA)

Continuing our look at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2019 Report to Congress, we examine China’s plans to achieve a commanding position in cislunar space. [Full Report]

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

China is determined to establish a commanding position in cislunar space, seeing it as a strategic location from which to dominate the final frontier.

“Beijing envisions the cislunar domain as the foundation for this long-term presence in space and jumping-off point for deep space exploration missions. This foundation for long-term presence will potentially include a transport hub orbiting Earth with permanently docked nuclear-powered shuttles for space missions, accessible from Earth via reusable rockets,” a new report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated.

“Independent analyst Namrata Goswami testified to the Commission that the goal of China’s space program is not merely exploration but rather ‘industrial and economic dominance of the cislunar system.’ China’s 2019 defense white paper stresses the importance of the capacity ‘to safely enter, exit, and openly use outer space,’” the document added.

The commission noted that space experts disagree over how soon cislunar can be developed because most of the technology required to do so has not been developed yet.

“Despite these uncertainties, China has devoted considerable resources to developing technology, especially through its human spaceflight program, to reap the long-term benefits of a sustained presence in cislunar space,” the document said. “China’s space station program and planned crewed moon and Mars missions are not ends unto themselves, but rather steps in a long-term plan to develop and maintain presence in this important area….

“Zhao Xiaojin, Party Secretary of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a state-owned aerospace research institution, said in March 2018 China hopes to begin construction of a lunar research station around 2025 prior to visits by taikonauts in the mid-2030s,” the report said.

China has begun work on technologies needed for solar power satellites that would beam energy down to work. The nation aims to deploy megawatt-class satellites by 2030 and gigawatt-class satellites by 2050.

Chinese officials are also exploring mining operations on the moon and asteroids.

“For example, based on 1997 estimates by U.S. planetary scientist John Lewis that one known near-earth asteroid could contain precious metals worth approximately $20 trillion, Li Mingtao, a scientist at the National Space Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has asserted capturing asteroids and sending them to Earth to be mined may become ‘a new engine for the global economy,’” the report stated.

The commission recommended Congress direct the National Space Council to develop a strategy that would include:

  • a long-term economic space resource policy strategy, including an assessment of the viability of extraction of space-based precious minerals, onsite exploitation of space-based natural resources, and space-based solar power;
  • a comparative assessment of China’s programs related to the above issues;
  • an assessment of U.S. strategic interests in or relating to cislunar space;
  • a plan to create a space commodities exchange to ensure the United States drives the creation of international standards for interoperable commercial space capabilities; and,
  • a plan to streamline and strengthen U.S. cooperation with allies and partners in space.

The commission also said Congress should “urge the Administration to actively participate in international space governance institutions to shape their development in a way that suits the interests of the United States and its allies and partners and to strengthen U.S. engagement with key coalitional allies and partners in the space domain.”

The relevant excerpt from the report follows.

A Commanding Position in Cislunar Space
and the Future Space Economy

Central to China’s economic and strategic goals in space is establishing a commanding position in cislunar space—the space within the moon’s orbit of Earth*—to reap the benefits of what Beijing views as its strategic value and the vast potential of the future space-based economy.

According to Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin, deputy director of the PLA’s Equipment Development Department, cislunar space is “strategically important for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” due to its potential for facilitating solar power and resource exploitation.

General James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also attested to cislunar space’s importance, testifying at the Commission’s April 25 hearing that it should be viewed as the strategic “hill over the valley” controlling access to space from Earth.

Beijing envisions the cislunar domain as the foundation for this long-term presence in space and jumping-off point for deep space exploration missions. This foundation for long-term presence will potentially include a transport hub orbiting Earth with permanently docked nuclear-powered shuttles for space missions, accessible from Earth via reusable rockets.**

Independent analyst Namrata Goswami testified to the Commission that the goal of China’s space program is not merely exploration but rather “industrial and economic dominance of the cislunar system.” China’s 2019 defense white paper stresses the importance of the capacity “to safely enter, exit, and openly use outer space.”

Experts disagree on whether humans will be able to exploit cislunar space at scale for economic and strategic purposes anytime soon, largely because much of the technology required to exploit this space has not been developed yet. Although the space economy may reach one to three trillion dollars by 2040, according to some estimates— a figure that does not include the vast potential value of mining space-based minerals—the steps required to fully harness this potential remain undetermined.

According to Todd Harrison, a senior space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in cislunar space there is “nothing really to dominate, at least not yet,” because it is so high above the altitudes at which space is currently useful for either commercial or national security purposes.

According to a May 2019 joint report by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Innovation Unit, however, cislunar space will become an important domain for the United States in the next five years and beyond due to the need to place national security space assets beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous orbit (GEO) to limit their vulnerability and enhance their utility, and because this domain will be crucial for establishing infrastructure to enable a long-term U.S. presence on the moon and beyond.

Despite these uncertainties, China has devoted considerable resources to developing technology, especially through its human spaceflight program, to reap the long-term benefits of a sustained presence in cislunar space. China’s space station program and planned crewed moon and Mars missions are not ends unto themselves, but rather steps in a long-term plan to develop and maintain presence in this important area.

For instance, since early in the Shenzhou spacecraft program—which saw its first launches in the late 1990s— the goal of China’s human spaceflight project has been to establish a long-term crewed space station which would serve as a stepping stone to further exploration of cislunar space and beyond.

China’s increasingly advanced lunar probes, intended to demonstrate all prerequisites for a crewed lunar mission (i.e., launch and orbit, soft landing, and sample return), provide a technological basis for the ability to land future modules in the same area to be assembled into a lunar surface station, according to Sun Zezhou, chief designer of Chang’e-4, China’s latest and most advanced probe.

In 2016, Lieutenant General Zhang, who is also deputy director of China’s human spaceflight program, said preliminary work had already commenced to begin exploitation of cislunar space after China completes its first long-term crewed space station in 2020.

A key component of China’s plan to support its activity in cislunar space and beyond is the establishment of permanent facilities on the moon. Zhao Xiaojin, Party Secretary of the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), a state-owned aerospace research institution, said in March 2018 China hopes to begin construction of a lunar research station around 2025 prior to visits by taikonauts^ in the mid-2030s.

China also plans to establish a lunar research and development base around 2050 that will be primarily robotic. The official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Science and Technology Daily, suggested the far side of the moon—on which China landed Chang’e-4 in January 2019—may be ideal for such a base, likening it to the “holy grail” of locations because it is shielded from terrestrial electromagnetic interference.

The value of the moon as a location for national security infrastructure focusing on Earth, however, is debatable. According to Mr. Harrison, communication at that distance is very inefficient, optical sensors would operate at very low resolution, and a projectile traveling from the moon to Earth would require about three days to make the journey.†

Cislunar space will also play an important role in China’s plans for space-based solar power, a futuristic power source that China aims to fully deploy by 2050, which may have the potential to provide virtually unlimited power to the whole world. The technology is currently in its initial phases, but the underlying concept for one method of transmitting energy via microwaves has been successfully demonstrated by U.S. and Japanese researchers at short ranges on Earth as recently as 2015.

U.S. space-based solar power expert John Mankins argued in 2017 there are no “technological showstoppers” preventing the development of this new power source, but it will be important to demonstrate the systems can work at the necessary distances and from space-based platforms.

China has demonstrated its seriousness in pursuing this concept by establishing an experimental space-based solar power ground station in Chongqing in early 2019. According to Dr. Goswami, Beijing’s space-based solar power plans would involve satellites exceeding 10,000 tons—the construction of which will only be possible by using lunar resources to build and then launch them onsite at an automated lunar base†† —to convert solar power into microwaves and beam energy directly from space to Earth, generating solar power much more reliably and efficiently than terrestrial solar panels.

China’s project would proceed by using high-altitude stratospheric balloons to test the system in the first half of the 2020s, followed by megawatt-class satellites by 2030 and gigawatt-class satellites by 2050. The projects have received significant funding and policy attention, including through CAST’s establishment in 2011 of the Qian Xuesen ‡ Laboratory of Space Technology, which studies space mining and manufacturing, including onsite additive manufacturing.

Chinese scientists and officials and experts from other countries do not all agree space-based solar power will become technologically viable, however. Its success depends on the perfection of both the transmission method and the automated lunar industrial-scale production and launch of large satellites, neither of which has been proven to be feasible at scale.

According to an expert quoted in August 2019 in the Guangming Daily, a central news portal focusing on the academic and intellectual community, China has in recent years made important advancements in crucial technology associated with wireless energy transmission necessary for space-based solar power.

China has set plans for other technologically ambitious milestones, such as mining of near-earth asteroids, which if successful could generate both significant national prestige and wealth. For example, based on 1997 estimates by U.S. planetary scientist John Lewis that one known near-earth asteroid could contain precious metals worth approximately $20 trillion, Li Mingtao, a scientist at the National Space Center under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has asserted capturing asteroids and sending them to Earth to be mined may become “a new engine for the global economy.”

Technology to make this type of mining possible does not yet exist, according to testimony from two witnesses at the Commission’s April 25 hearing, and it would be extremely difficult to implement. Two U.S. companies have already gone out of business after failing to create a sustainable business model around this concept.

Nevertheless, given Li Mingtao’s dual affiliation both with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and as part of a specialized team at the Qian Xuesen Laboratory working on a plan to detect, capture, and mine very small near-earth asteroids, Beijing appears to be serious about trying to overcome these technical challenges.

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* Cislunar space is the sphere comprising all the volume between Earth and the moon. This space includes commonly used orbits such as low-Earth orbit (up to approximately 2,000 km above the Earth), geosynchronous orbit (approximately 3,400–3,800 km), and medium-Earth orbit (between low-Earth and geosynchronous orbits), as well as the much vaster space beyond; geosynchronous orbit is only about a tenth of the distance to the moon. In this section, “cislunar space” generally refers to the space above altitudes currently useful for security and economic purposes. GIS Geography, “Geosynchronous vs Geostationary Orbits,” February 23, 2018; Marianne R. Bobskill and Mark L. Lupisella, “The Role of Cis-Lunar Space in Future Global Space Exploration,” Global Space Exploration Conference, Washington, DC, May 2012, 1; Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, “IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines,” September 2007, 5.

** The planned nuclear shuttle fleet is beyond China’s current technology, since Beijing has not yet mastered even conventional launch vehicles, but it is a key project planned for completion by about 2040 that if successful will enable large-scale exploration and resource exploitation in space. Stephen Chen, “China’s Nuclear Spaceships Will Be ‘Mining Asteroids and Flying Tourists’ as It Aims to Overtake U.S. in Space Race,” South China Morning Post, November 17, 2017; Xinhua, “China to Achieve ‘Major Breakthrough’ in Nuclear-Powered Space Shuttle around 2040: Report,” November 16, 2017.

^ The terms astronaut (U.S. usage), taikonaut (Chinese usage), and cosmonaut (Russian usage) all refer to trained professionals who travel into space and operate spacecraft. More specifically, the terms each refer to people trained and certified by different space agencies, each of which has different operational philosophies, knowledge areas, and skill sets, and thus they are effectively distinct job titles. Robert Frost, “What Are the Differences between an Astronaut and a Cosmonaut?” Forbes, May 11, 2017.

† This is an approximation; transit times vary based on trajectory and the amount of propellant used. The Apollo 11 mission in 1969 took just short of 22 days and 23 hours [sic] to return from the Moon—the fastest-ever transit for a crewed craft. The Soviet satellite Luna 1 in 1959 reached the Moon in 34 hours, one of the fastest trips on record. Even a hypersonic missile traveling from the moon at Mach 15 would require approximately 22 hours to reach Earth. Todd Harrison, Director of Defense Budget Analysis and Aerospace Security Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies, interview with Commission staff, June 26, 2019; R. Jeffrey Smith, “Hypersonic Missiles Are Unstoppable. And They’re Starting a New Global Arms Race,” New York Times, June 19, 2019; Tim Sharp, “How Far is the Moon?” Space, October 27, 2017; Matt Williams, “How Long Does It Take to Get to the Moon?” Universe Today, January 10, 2016.

†† Onsite use of lunar water—estimated at up to 100 million metric tons in the form of ice—and rock should not be confused with mining for precious resources, which is another potential Chinese project. The former type of mining is proposed to enable long-term presence on the moon and the ability to travel elsewhere from the moon by creating rocket fuel, drinking water, and building materials from lunar resources, while the latter type would bring precious minerals to Earth. Lior Rubanenko, Jaahnavee Venkatraman, and David A. Paige, “Thick Ice Deposits in Shallow Simple Craters on the Moon and Mercury,” Nature Geoscience, 2019; U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing on China in Space: A Strategic Competition? oral testimony of Brian Weeden, April 25, 2019, 120; National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lunar South Pole, September 27, 2010.

‡ Qian Xuesen, often thought of as the father of China’s space program, was born in China but worked in the United States for decades on rocket programs. Qian helped found NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and attained the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force before being deported to China in 1955 after being accused of harboring Communist sympathies. Qian was then instrumental in establishing China’s Long March rocket program and eventually served on the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. He was the most prominent of several notable Chinese engineers who studied in the United States and returned to China to contribute to its high-tech programs. Zhang Zhihao, “Top Rocket Scientist Dies, Age 102,” China Daily, February 14, 2017; Michael Wines, “Qian Xuesen, Father of China’s Space Program, Dies at 98,” New York Times, November 3, 2009; Chinese Academy of Sciences, “China’s Notable Space Scientist Liang Shoupan Died,” September 9, 2009; Evan Feigenbaum, China’s Techno-Warriors: National Security and Strategic Competition from the Nuclear to the Information Age, Stanford University Press, 2003, 62; Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China, Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China: PRC Missile and Space Forces, January 2, 1999, 178.