On June 25, 2016, China launched a 53-meter, 600-tonne rocket, which became the latest of the country’s spacecraft to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and voyage into space. The purpose of the Long March-7 rocket is to deliver cargo for a Chinese space station currently being constructed, as well as act as a main carrier for future space launches.
Although news of China doing these types of launches is becoming increasingly routine, this particular rocket was different as it was the first to take place at the new Wenchang launch complex, and the first one that was allowed to be witnessed by members of the public.
China is truly committed to becoming a major space power, following in the lead of Russia and the U.S., who for so long have dominated space exploration. In mid-August, the country launched a satellite for quantum communications (Micius), with the Chinese press agency Xinhua explaining that:
“The satellite’s two-year mission will be to develop ‘hack-proof’ quantum communications, allowing users to send messages securely and at speeds faster than light.”
On September 15th, China also launched Tiangong-2, a 10.4 meter, 9.5-ton uncrewed space lab that is expected to receive a 30-day visit from two Chinese astronauts in late-October. The space craft is designed to lay the foundations for a permanent 60-ton space station that is expected to be completed by 2022
The U.S. still outspends China when it comes to space, with the Asian nation’s space exploration budget of $6 billion just a fraction of the $40 billion that the U.S. invests each year. Still, China is now spending nearly $1 billion more on its space program than Russia.
Moreover, when you compare productivity, China has managed to come out on top of the United States even with a tiny budget. Before China’s space push, the U.S. only launched 19 space missions in 2013, while China was not far behind at 14. That year, Russia had 31 missions into space. So what’s motivating China?
While some might worry that the country is hoping to take over space, experts who are familiar with the space program and the Chinese government believe that it is more a matter of appearances. As the Chinese economy grows, the leaders of the Asian nation want to show that China is as modern and advanced as the other super powers. By competing with the U.S. and Russia in space exploration, China hopes to show that they are able to compete in a larger context. That’s why China is not only investing in the quantity of their space missions but also in developing new technologies that the world has never seen before. As Wang Chi of the National Space Science Centre, Chinese Academy of Sciences, explains:
“Science is becoming more and more important in the Chinese space programme. We are not [just] satisfied with the achievements we have made in the fields of space technology and space application. With the development of the Chinese space programme, we are trying to make contributions to human knowledge about the universe.”