China has sent more satellites into space this year than US and Russia, report says

Laura Zhou
·4-min read

China has launched more satellites into orbit this year than the United States and Russia, according to an American report, as Beijing steadily advances in aerospace amid growing rivalry with the US.

But observers say that although China has been increasing its efforts to catch up, the US remains far ahead in its aerospace programmes, activities and technologies.

In the first nine months, China sent 29 satellites into space – two more than the US, Virginia-based consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology said in a quarterly report.

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Russia was ranked third, launching eight satellites in the period, ahead of France which launched six.

State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation was the most active individual company, with 25 launches, ahead of Elon Musk’s Space X, which had 15 launches in the period, the report said.

Beijing has been pushing ahead with an ambitious space programme which includes plans to set up a space station by 2022 and a lunar station by 2045.

In June, the final satellite in the BeiDou navigation system was sent into orbit, completing a network that is China’s answer to the US-owned Global Positioning System.

China also announced in September that it had successfully launched an experimental reusable spacecraft, which state news agency Xinhua said would provide support “for the peaceful use of space”.

Michael Raska, an assistant professor with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said China’s space programme, technologies and capabilities had significantly advanced in recent years.

“China has invested in space launch vehicles, space tracking and control facilities, strategic missile forces, and next-generation precision navigation satellites,” Raska said.

But Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert, said there was still a wide gap between Chinese and US technologies and noted that space was part of a broader strategic rivalry between the two powers.

“The satellite launch race can also be viewed as a cutting-edge technology competition within the arms race … as many of these satellites are for civilian-military dual use but their defence purposes are of higher importance,” Ni said.

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He said despite government support, China lagged behind the US, where private companies such as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin had taken the industry lead. California-based SpaceX launched 184 spacecraft into orbit in the first nine months of the year, according to the report. That made it the most active in terms of spaceship launches in the world.

China has also grappled with launch failures. In September, it confirmed that the optical remote-sensing satellite Jilin-1 Gaofen 02C had failed to enter its preset orbit. That followed another failed launch two months earlier, the Kuaizhou-11 commercial solid rocket, which had two satellites on board. China also had satellite launch failures in March and April.

Raska said that while America was still at the forefront of global space endeavours, the intensifying competition indicated that the US, China, Russia and “any country with strategically important satellite constellations and its own launch facilities is now considering how to defend – and weaponise – their extraterrestrial assets”.

“There is a growing awareness that space is vital to national security, as space assets may be increasingly vulnerable to a range of threats that may deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt or destroy these assets,” Raska said.

With a 2022 target for its space station, the China Manned Space Agency – under the People’s Liberation Army – last month said a third group of 18 astronauts had been selected for the mission, including seven pilots, seven space flight engineers and four payload specialists.

“Space programmes provide geopolitical influence and freedom of action,” Raska said. “For China, space assets enable the PLA to accelerate its ongoing transformation drive; economically, they propel economic and technological advancement and increase revenues for China’s space industrial base,” he said. “In other words, China’s aerospace capabilities are seen as vital to China’s rise, power projection and global influence.”

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