Space: China Rising


March 27, 2012:  China is on its way to becoming the most prolific launcher of space satellites. Currently, Russia is first with 36 a year, China second with 19, and the U.S. third with 18. China put its first satellite up in 1970. Over the next 31 years China put 50 more satellites into orbit and developed satellite launcher rockets that were 90 percent successful. By 1986, Chinese launchers were considered reliable enough for Western companies to use them for putting their expensive (although insured) satellites into orbit. In the last decade China has also developed modern (comparable to Western models) satellites for everything from communications and photo-reconnaissance to weather forecasting. Year by year China has increased the number of satellite launchers available to put Chinese and foreign satellites in orbit. China offers low prices. That, combined with adequate reliability, has made China a major player in the satellite launch business.

China is also becoming a major manufacturer of satellites. Chinese satellite technology has made enormous strides in the last two decades. Some of that progress is believed to have come from Russia, which was broke in the 1990s and had a lot of fairly modern satellite technology it could no longer afford to build or place in orbit. China also sought to obtain Western technology but was blocked after 1989 because of their savage repression of pro-democracy demonstrators. In 2000, Britain refused to export photo-satellite technology to China, even though the Chinese promised that it was only for non-military use. The British noted that this civilian satellite tech was superior to anything else the Chinese had at the time. Nevertheless, China did obtain some Western satellite tech, one way or another. By 2001, the Chinese were putting their first digital photo satellites in orbit. Before that they used film cameras, which had to eject film canisters earthward for retrieval and processing. Most of the Chinese spy satellites put into orbit were placed there in the last decade.

China has over sixty military space satellites in orbit. At least sixteen of these will be dual-use photo reconnaissance or largely military radar satellites. These are smaller than those used by the United States. The Chinese models tend to be three tons or less and don't last as long. There are also nearly 20 military communications satellites and sixteen Beidou navigation satellites. There are another dozen or so miscellaneous scientific and research satellites. Most of these satellites have gone up in the last six years and are of modern design.