Monday, December 29, 2008

China's Small Satellites/Space Booster Program

Found this interesting article in the December 22/29, 2008 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology by Craig Covault (see reference at end of article). Photos released by Chinese Internet on December 11, 2007, shows two views of the semi-lifting body booster shaped rocket under the belly of a Chinese H-6 “Badger” bomber. From the photographs, the boosters appears to be reusable since it appears to have thermal protection tiles on its nose and wings.

From, their evaluation is that this is a test article for hypersonic research. Even if this rocket was launched from an improved H-6K Badger with D-30K turbofans which would carry the carrier aircraft up to a much higher altitude, the Shenlong would only be capable of short-duration LEO (Low Earth Orbit) over Chinese territory.
But getting back to the AW&ST article, the microsatellite production offers Beijing three major benefits. It provides support for national development, lucrative and geo-strategically relevant foreign sales. And also potential military space control.

The problems facing US space military planners are: What are microsatellite (and smallsat) capabilities does Chinese currently possess, and how might these capabilities develop in the future? These are some of the concerns voiced by Andrew S. Erickson, assistant professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. Erickson is well versed in all things Chinese. He speaks Chinese and holds a Ph. D. In Chinese aerospace studies. The latest Chinese research into the micro and smallsat programs crosses several national technology efforts in that country's research and development. Bottom line is that China's surge into the micro, smallsat spacecraft is to gain a strategic advantage over the United States with increasingly capable, low-cost satellites that can be launched as easily with, as Erickson puts it “reconstitutable assets.” This is important in that the costly and cumbersome systems can be stuck on the launch pad because of heavy booster complexity.

This yeas(2008) is a good example year to point out the differences between the Chinese and the American Space programs. In 2008, China launched 10 ELVs(Expendable Launch Vehicle) missions, several with multiple lightsat payloads with dual-use military/civil objectives. The United States launched the same number of ELVs. After 40 years of effort, the Chinese are now even with the United States in space operations. As for the US ELV effort this year, several were delayed by heavy booster or spacecraft problems.

Erickson also said, “China today has only a fraction of the overall space capability of the U.S., and still has major gaps in coverage of every satellite application. But development by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST) of a new generation of satellite buses indicates standardization, quality control and emerging mass production ability-part of a larger trend in China's dual-use military technological projects. By studying the capabilities of power and propulsion subsystems, and the satellites that use them.”

China is employing thousands of people to push the bounds of micro technology development through the assembly of dozen of new microsats and smallsats for launch by the end of the decade. Professor Erickson also told reported Craig Covault that he had found global aerospace contractor collaboration on many of the less military-oriented projects and the adoption of U.S. And European management reforms, even in the military programs. The ISO 9000 management initiatives in several of those smallsat production facilities. Now on the geopolitical side, China is using the effort to garner more partnerships among Asia-Pacific-region nations. And another motivation is foreign sales, in which Chinese satellites, components and launch and training services have performed relatively well.

At a April 2008 meeting in Beijing that was in part, sponsored by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies; smallsat initiatives were a key topic of that meeting. Sun Laiyan, the head of the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), stressed how they form the core of development for Earth and space science missions in his civilian agency, especially for new disaster-monitoring satellites. But it is also pointed out that Sun was also the vice minister of China's Commission of Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense. That agency plans military technology development.

For 2009, Chinese launch plans include the Hummingbird I and the 1A that will demonstrate close-proximity operations. The potentially historic Yinghuo 1 smallsat that is to be launched into Mars orbit via a Russian sample-return mission to the Martian moon Phobos. China is also scheduled to launch its HJ-C radar smallsat. This is a major military/civil smallsat project.

Now getting back to the Shenlong booster. It is to be launched from the carrier aircraft in much the same way as the U.S. Pegasus air-launched booster. The most notable difference is that the Shenlong is designed to be recoverable. And is believed to be designed for ASAT (Anti-Satellite) missions. It is expected that the Shenlong will become operational by 2010.

Of concern to U.S. Planners is that when China launched it's ASAT a few years ago now, it was based upon a microsatellite bus which could use infrared, radar, or pulsed radar guidance, or a combination of all three systems.


Ref. AW&ST article “Size Doesn't Matter China is developing bi military space capabilities using small satellite payloads” by Craig Covault. Pg 23-24.

Much more information, including what organizations are working on the Shenlong at

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