Written in the Stars: China's Space Ambitions

Image credit: Scott Kelly (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

On the 31 March, 2018 the 8.5 metric tonne Chinese Space Station Tiangong-1, translated as “Heavenly Palace-1”, disintegrated upon reentry into earth’s atmosphere over the South Pacific. The destruction of China’s spacecraft Tiangong-1 stands as a lost opportunity for the nascent space power to assert and reinforce its leadership internationally and in outer space.

The space station is the Chinese Manned Space Agency’s (CMSA) prototype version of the international space station. As China’s first space station, the 10.4-meter-long and 3.35-meter-wide vehicle is an experimental space laboratory designed to house several taikonauts in low earth orbit (LEO). The mission was created with the intent of furthering China’s human exploration under the PRC’s broader 20-year-old USD$6.1 billion human spaceflight program, and advancing China’s grand ambitions to become a space superpower and place Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2036.

Following the loss of contact with the spacecraft in 2016, mainstream media and social media continuously expressed concern over the possible damages that could be wrought by such an object upon re-entry into Earth. An estimated 20-40% of a spacecraft generally survives reentry, consisting of the heat-resistant fuel tanks, thrusters, and other parts such as metal docking rings. When such debris fragments into smaller less-lethal sized objects kilometers above the ground and scatter over a large geographical area, there is potential for major distraction should the spacecraft contain any nuclear or other hazardous materials (i.e. Hydrazine propellant) were it to hit a densely populated area.

China repeatedly assured and routinely notified the UN of the deteriorating status of its space craft, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry emphasised that the government had been dealing with the issue in accordance with international conventions and would notify relevant countries when necessary. The China Manned Space Engineering Office also sought to assure the public that it was highly unlikely that the descending spacecraft would cause any damage on the ground.

Why is it happening?

Launched on the 29 September, 2011, Tiangong-1 performed China's first-ever in-space docking on 2 November 2011, when the automated Shenzhou-8 spacecraft conducted a space rendezvous with the unmanned Tiangong-1. This was followed by two crewed missions to the space lab, Shenzhou-9 in June 2012 and Shenzhou-10 in June 2013.

While the Shenzhou-10 marked the end of Tiangong-1’s operational life and was originally planned to be followed by a controlled destructive de-orbit in 2013, China placed the space lab into sleep mode with the attention of collecting data on the longevity of key components, manage natural disasters, locate minerals, and monitor ocean and forest use for as long as the space lab could remain in orbit. Extending the operational lifespan of technology in outer space is a frequent practice amongst spacefaring nations to maintain space capabilities and gather greater returns on investment, as observed by the Mars Curiosity rover. However, without maintenance, the extended use of equipment past its recommended date invariably leads to critical failure.

Consequently, on 16 March, 2016 there was a loss of communications with Tiangong-1. The CMSA reported that the functions of the space lap had “been disabled” and that it had ceased sending data back, with the CMSA effectively losing command of the station. This was later revealed to have been caused by a dysfunctional battery charger that left the space lab without power. Following this, the CMSA only formally notified the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in May 2017 that the spacecraft had completed its mission and would undergo an uncontrolled reentry in 2018. The notice further stated that China resolved to:

  1. Make strict arrangements to track and closely monitor Tiangong-1;

  2. Improve the information reporting mechanism moving forward, in releasing information through the news media; and

  3. Issue relevant information and early warnings in a timely manner to UNOOSA and the UN Secretary General.

With a controlled re-entry rendered unfeasible, the space lab was left to eventually fall back to Earth on its own through atmospheric drag, while being constantly monitored by the Chinese government. This situation aligned with one of the two accepted methods of disposing space debris within the industry: either raising the object into a graveyard orbit or atmospheric entry through a de-orbit manoeuvre. The former involves using the satellite’s propellant to boost it beyond low year orbit into a higher orbital path, where it will remain for hundreds or thousands of years. The latter involves the lowering of the satellite’s orbit into the Earth’s atmosphere, where the extreme temperatures of re-entry would destroy the object. It is important to note that China possesses experience in the disposal of satellites via atmospheric entry – on the 22nd September, 2017 the spacecraft Tianzhou-1 was deliberately de-orbited without incident.

International Space Law

In respect of the liability of space debris, including that of Tiangong-1, there exists two key international instruments. The first is that of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), a document that represents the basic legal framework and customary principles of international space law among 107 UN member States which are party to it. Article VII of the OST specifies that each State is internationally liable for damage to another State for damages cause against its property and citizens, while Article VII mandates that States “shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space” regardless of whether those activities are undertaken by government or non-government entities.

Secondly is the 1972 Space Liability Convention, which supplements the liability clauses in the OST. Under the Convention, Article II provides that a “launching state” will be “absolutely liable” to pay compensation for damaged caused by its space objects. Further, Article XII outlines that compensation is determined on the basis that it restores the victim “to the condition which would have existed if the damage had not occurred.’

There have been two notable cases involving the accidental reentry of hazardous space materials. Firstly, on the 24 January, 1978 the fragmentation of Soviet Satellite Cosmos 954 upon reentry resulted in the deposit of radioactive debris across northern Canada, leading to the only claim (to-date) under the Liability Convention for CA$6 million against the Soviet Union. Secondly, on 12 July, 1979 the US space station Skylab scattered debris across Esperance in Western Australia upon re-entry, but did not result in any claims under the Liability Convention, and a refusal from NASA to foot the AUD$400 bill.

Under a strict application of the existing space law framework, China may be deemed negligent in its reluctance to release accurate information to the UN and the public on the spacecraft until 14 months after its malfunction. Had the spacecraft dispersed hazardous materials or resulted in deaths upon impact, or damaged other satellites in orbit, China would have been accountable under the Convention. However, the fault liability standard of the Convention outlines that a State will only be liable where it is proved that the damage caused was owing to the fault of the State.

Consequently, there exists utility in considering an amendment to the Liability Convention outlining that satellites in LEO past their declared operational term should be disposed of. However, including such an amendment under international law would be ineffectual if lacking an enforcement mechanism – an issue that similarly continues to hinder the development of international regulations regarding resource mining and property in outer space.

States should endeavour to promote trust-based confidence measures in furtherance of international customary law and principles that advocate for sustainable practices in outer space, including the European Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICOC). However, developing spacefaring nations - Brazil, Russia, India, and China - remain reluctant to sign the EU Code because they were insufficiently consulted in its development, and believe its implementation to be a ploy by dominant space powers to limit their development of capabilities in outer space.

A Maturing Space Program

Tiangong-1 presented the opportunity for China to lead by redefining the notion of negligence within the Liability Convention and establishing new international customary practices. Arguably, China would have benefited from promising to honour any claims for damages in respect of orbital debris from Tiangong-1, voicing its support for the ICOC, or launching additional missions to place the space station in a graveyard orbit, initiate a predictable atmospheric entry, or salvage the station for future projects.

While Tiangong-1s atmospheric entry was not of significant concern to scientists, and highlighted China’s developing maturity in outer space affairs, the affair was a lost opportunity for China and illustrates a series of concerns that persist over the development of its space program.

Firstly, China’s space program has long remained shrouded in secrecy. Often the public is only exposed to carefully selected images of launches and space technologies within the Chinese state media. The underlying reasons have included the desire to obfuscate its militarisation efforts of space and avoid the embarrassment of critical failures. This secrecy is also believed to be a tactical measure to lull the US into a false sense of security over their existing dominance in outer space, while deriving important economic, political and diplomatic benefits from its burgeoning space program. This was further emphasised by its ambiguous statements and the 14-month gap in reporting on the condition of Tiangong-1. However, a change in policy may be gleamed from the ambitions of its 2016 Space White Paper to adopt “a more active and open attitude”. While China assured the UN in May 2017 that it resolved to facilitate transparency through the improvement of information reporting mechanisms, only time will tell if the PRC will honour this commitment.

Secondly, China has continuously disregarded environmental issues within its space activities. This was illustrated with the launch of a Long March 3B carrying two GNSS satellites on 12 January, 2018 when one of its boosters landed near the town of Xiangdu in Guangxi region and exposed residents to highly-hazardous hypergolic fuel. While China’s key launching facilities are situated deep inland, the prospect of overland launches presents a distinct set of risks compared to the over-water launches of the US and other nations, and has produced a number of incidents which have resulted in human casualties. In outer space, China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test of 11 January, 2007 and destruction of a redundant weather satellite using an ASAT missile, created a cloud of orbital debris which has since continuously posed a threat to other nations’ access to space. However, the controlled de-orbit of the Tianzhou-1 spacecraft indicates that China is gradually learning from its errors.

Third, China continues to pursue the development of ASAT weaponry to counter US dominance in outer space. This encompasses the development of both kinetic and non-kinetic weapons, including missiles, micro satellites, directed energy weapons, electromagnetic pulses, and cyberweapons which are predicted to reach initial operational capability in the next few years. These could prove lethal in crippling the ability of opposing states to conduct navigation, communication, meteorological, and earth observation activities. While ASAT weapons are not explicitly prohibited under Article IV of the OST, China’s actions run contrary to international customs and conflict with its December 2014 declaration in the UN to adopt measures that would forestall an arms race in outer space.

Fourth, China’s illicit technology transfer activities pose a continuous threat to cooperative States. Amongst the ongoing trade war between the US and China, a longstanding issue of concern has been China’s engagement in unfair trade practices by forcing investors to turn over key technologies to Chinese firms, or otherwise obtain such technologies via espionage, deception or hacking. These concerns extend to the space industry, as the US government has prohibited NASA from collaborating with China and Chinese nationals since 2011 under its Chinese exclusion policy of NASA.

Space Race 2.0

Given parallels, the outer-space policies of States’ may be considered through the dimension of naval power. Alfred Thayer Mahan describes control of the sea by maritime commerce and naval supremacy as equating to predominant global influence. The ocean acts as a staging-ground for nations to forge hard and soft-power capabilities based upon geographical position, physical conformation, territorial extent, population size, character of peoples, and nature of government. This circumstance is increasingly reflected in outer-space; as the US realises the threats posed by the China’s intensified economic and military interests to its established strategic high ground in outer-space.

The rapid development of China’s space program demonstrates its significance to the Chinese government in rivalling and eventually overtaking the US, thus realising the ‘Chinese Dream’ of becoming a fully developed nation by 2049. In 2003, China launched its first manned space mission Shenzhou-5, a watershed moment for the country’s space ambitions as China became the third country in the world to independently launch a man into earth orbit after Russia and the US. The subsequent Tiangong program emulates the structure of the Mercury program and reinforces China’s ambitions to place humans on the moon by 2036. The acquired ability to conduct space-docking operations was an immense technical achievement, enabling the transfer of human and cargo in outer space, and central to the wider exploration of the solar system. Additionally, China is on track to complete the development of its Beidou Satellite System by 2020, a domestically developed navigation system set to eclipse the GPS system in accuracy and scope.

However, Beijing continues to oppose the voluntary and non-binding ICOC in preference of a broader treaty which would ban the deployment of weapons in space, in turn significantly limiting US activities in space while achieving little in addressing actual threats to space assets. So long as the US occupies the strategic high ground in space, China’s national interests in space shall remain fixated upon defense and security.

Jonathan Lim is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.