China is fast becoming a leader in space exploration. With out of this world ideas and backing from country’s government, China aims to become a major global space power over the course of the next decade.

In January 2017, Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), stated that China intends to be “among the major space powers of the world” by 2030.

Since the first Chinese ‘taikonaut’ (a person who travels in space for the Chinese space program) mission to space in 2003, Beijing has invested significantly in its space program in an attempt to match other global space powers and improve national development. Beijing is also keen to promote space science within the country.

China currently spends more on spaceflight operations than any country except the United States. According to Euroconsult’s Government Space Programs: Benchmarks, Profiles & Forecasts to 2029, which is an extensive view of the activities and budgets of government space programs, China maintained its second-place ranking with an estimated $8.9 billion budget for space program in 2020. The US budget totaled $48 billion. Additionally, China’s space program carried out 39 spaceflights in 2020.

As an aspiring global space superpower, China intends to achieve cost-effective measures for future interplanetary explorations. Therefore, there are three major spheres where China aims for further scientific and technological development. Firstly, China strives to build its own permanent modular space station. Secondly, the country aims to develop the capacity to create a permanent manned presence on the moon. Thirdly, China aims to study deep space with planetary probes.   

China’s deep space exploration

Deep space exploration involves studying distant regions of outer space. However, there is little global consensus on the meaning of ‘distant’ when referring to deep space. Instead, China’s outer space exploration program focuses on key scientific questions with an overall planning to investigate Mars, Jupiter, Earth, Venus and Uranus. 

China aims to collate significant research findings regarding the origin and development of the solar system, asteroid chasing and the search of extraterrestrial life alongside promoting astronomy, space science and technological development in the country. 

China’s stated interest in Mars began in 2009 in cooperation with Russia. However, after a failed joint mission in 2011, the Chinese space agency started an independent exploration of the Red Planet. Since then, China is on track to land its own rover on Mars' surface. According to Chinese Journal of Space Science (CJSS), China’s deep space exploration program will be conducted in three stages. The first stage is already in motion with a mission to the Red Planet.

With aim to study and grasp more control of communication and technologies in deep space, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched the first independent Mars mission, called Tianwen-1 (TW-1), on July 23, 2020. The Tianwen-1 spacecraft blasted from the Long-March 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in Hainan, southern China. 

On July 26, 2020, Geng Yan, an official at the Lunar Exploration Program and Space Program Center at China National Space Administration, told Xinhua News Agency: “we only have a limited understanding of Mars. There are still many uncertainties about the environment and great risks.”

Having traveled approximately seven months, Tianwen-1 spacecraft entered the Martian orbit on February 10, 2021. To this day, the orbiter is scanning the Martian surface to find and set the target landing site for the lander, which is planned to occur in mid-May or June 2021. Once it succeeds, the rover, named Zhurong (‘God of Fire’), will be released to study the Red Planet. 

But China’s Mars mission faces several challenges. Unlike landings on the moon, where China has demonstrated success, Mars landings are more complicated because of a change in gravity and sparse atmosphere. If China succeeds, a second sample return mission to Mars is planned for 2030. 

Chinese Space Station (CSS)

China is seeking to build its capacity for scientific and technological innovation by creating a large independent modular space station.

Chinese officials hope that research conducted in the yet to be built Chinese Space Station (CSS) would support their long-term interplanetary exploration objectives on Mars, moon and other planets.

The first of three elements of the future Chinese Space Station was launched on April 29, 2021. The core module, which will be the habitable space of the taikonauts and the station's control center, was propelled by a Long-March 5B rocket from the Wenchang launch center in Hainan, southern China.

A press statement read: "The station is also expected to contribute to the peaceful development and utilization of space resources through international cooperation, as well as to enrich technologies and experience for China's future explorations into deeper space.”

Named Tiangong, (‘Heavenly Palace’), the Chinese Space Station will be a third of the size of the International Space Station (ISS). A second launch is expected in May 2021, and the first manned station will take place a month later. The CSS is planned to be fully operational by 2022. It is expected that the Chinese Space Station will be operational for approximately 10 years. However, experts are saying that it might “last more than 15 years with appropriate maintenance and repairs”.

The current ISS, that has been orbiting the Earth since 1998, is due to be retired after 2024. The CSS could be the only space station on orbit past that date. China was excluded from the ISS program, which regroups Russia, the US, Canada, Europe and Japan, over concerns that the cooperation would be used to improve its own military programs.

China began laying the foundation for CSS launch a decade ago. In September 2011, the country launched a prototype space station called Tiangong-1 to continue improving its human spaceflight skills and test the technologies needed to assemble a large space station in low Earth orbit.

The race to the moon

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), also known as Chang’e Project, is an ongoing venture into robotic moon missions managed by the CNSA. Having conducted several stages of the project, China’s space program includes an extensive future plan to launch a manned moon mission by 2030.

At a press conference for China's Chang'e-5 lunar mission in 2020, Wu Yanhua, vice president of the CNSA, said: “China's manned space program will be very busy in 2021 and 2022.”  

As part of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, which includes manned spaceflight missions to the moon, Beijing has outlined joint plans with Russia to begin the development of a lunar base. The base would be used for more accessible interplanetary space explorations.

On March 9, 2021, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced its plan to build a lunar research base in partnership with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos. The venture, which is the first space project between to countries, is ambitious. The heads of both space authorities signed an official memorandum, marking a symbolic start to the space project.

Both China and Russia’s respective equivalents of NASA would jointly develop a lunar base known as the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), an alternative for European Space Agency’s (ESA) proposed ‘space village’.

According to CNSA, the proposed station will be built on the “lunar surface or lunar orbit and will carry out scientific research activities such as the lunar exploration and utilization, lunar-based observation, basic scientific experiment and technical verification”.

The future lunar base will be mainly operated by China and Russia. However, in a statement from Roscosmos, the agencies stated that they were open for international cooperation. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) is already studying the range of experiments that can be carried out onboard the CSS, particularly by developing countries. Additionally, a China-Russia joint proposal of a lunar station development does not have a timeline.