China has had more space launches in the first 10 months of 2021 than in any previous whole year, and is narrowly ahead of the United States in the intensifying space race.
There were 40 launches, with two failures, from Chinese rocket launch pads by the end of October – already more than 2020’s 39, the country’s previous high for a year, with at least seven more planned before the end of December. In the same 10 months, the United States had 39 launches, of which 36 were successful.
This year’s notable Chinese missions have included the core module of the Tiangong space station and two crewed missions shuttling three astronauts each to the station.
Last week, China launched the 31st satellite in its biggest commercial remote sensing system, the 138-satellite Jilin series. It is an optical remote sensing satellite that can provide high-resolution images and high-speed data transmission.
The new generation of rockets that are set to become the key carrier vehicles – the heavy-lifting Long March 5B and medium-lifting Long March 7A – both first succeeded in launching this year after delays or failures.
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s main space contractor, had planned 40 launches this year and by October it had completed 36.
Two launches this year were carried out by missile developer China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation subsidiary Expace, and there were two by private company iSpace. They, too, have further launches expected this year.
China has invested heavily in space programmes in recent years and made significant progress.
Before 2007, it had never carried out more than 10 launches in a year. But since then it has gathered momentum, carrying out 152 launches in the past five years – more than any other country.
It had the world’s most in 2018 and 2019, surpassing the United States, the long-time leader in the field, with 38 and 32 respectively compared with 34 and 21. The US reclaimed the lead in 2020, with 44.
Russia, the other major space player, has had only 18 so far this year and had 15 last year.
But this “race” is far from the level of the space race during the Cold War. Between 1957 and 1991, Soviet rockets completed 2,309 successful launches, at an average of 66 per year.
Although the Chinese have caught up in terms of launches, they still lag in rockets’ carrying capability. China’s most powerful rocket, the CZ-5, completed in 2019, can transport 25 tonnes to Lower Earth Orbit – comparable to Europe’s Ariane 5 and Russia’s Proton-M, but the US has the Falcon Heavy, which can carry 64 tonnes.
As a result, CASC is working on two potential super-heavy-lift rockets for moon and planetary missions.
Much of China’s acceleration in launch activity has been related to state-owned institutions and construction of new launch centres, but its private and commercial sector is also making strides.
In another sign of China’s capability, this time in space warfare, a Chinese satellite reportedly used a manoeuvre to avoid being followed by a spying US satellite.
In July, China’s most advanced communication satellite was approached in parallel by a US space surveillance satellite before quickly moving away, US military website Breaking Defence reported on Friday.