China’s Cislunar Space Ambitions Draw Scrutiny
Some members of the space community are sounding the alarm as China indicates it may seek to establish a commanding position in cislunar space, to include the area near the Moon’s orbit.
Experts say China’s ambitious plans raise important questions about the national security implications of cislunar space — the areas beyond geosynchronous orbit.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., warned in February that China intends to occupy the Moon. While the nation claims the base will be used for civilian purposes, Beijing’s civil-military fusion policy means that all civil work is intertwined with its military ambitions, he said.
“The Chinese have said that they want to have a permanent presence [on the Moon] by 2024,” he said during a panel discussion at a Space Foundation event in February.
“They very much have military thoughts in mind when it comes to what they could do with a permanent presence on the Moon and the ability to track things and see things from an unchanging platform that no one really has right now,” he added.
While analysts and lawmakers are wary of China’s intentions, one expert said the country’s plans aren’t necessarily as clear as some are chalking them up to be.
Many of the ideas about Beijing’s future in space come from individual scientists, engineers or people associated with China’s Space Agency, said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. But many of those plans have not been adopted or funded by the government.
For instance, when an individual associated with the government in China makes a proposal or PowerPoint presentation, these thoughts are sometimes mistakenly assumed to be official policy, he said.
“Unfortunately, this often gets lost in reporting,” he said. “We need to be very careful about just discriminating between what is officially Chinese policy and things that are funded in their budget, as opposed to ideas and proposals.”
There are many experts and officials in the United States who have been arguing for a long time that America should be more ambitious in space, he said. “Now they’re trying to say, ‘Oh look, China’s doing it. Therefore, we’ve got to go do it first,’” he added.
Another group of individuals sounding the alarm are the “China hawks” who take a hardline approach toward the nation that the Pentagon views as a great power competitor, Weeden said.
When Beijing does something they view as provocative, China hawks say, “‘Look, this is an example of why China is a threat to the United States, [and] why the U.S. needs to do something about it,’” Weeden said.
However, China’s actions have served as the catalyst for change in what the Defense Department tracks and manages in space, Weeden noted.
“Up until very, very recently, the military was solely focused on Earth orbit,” he said. “Anything beyond that was left for NASA to track.”
“If it was a satellite in Earth orbit, the U.S. Air Force was tracking it,” he explained. “If it was an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, NASA was tracking it. And if it was the spacecraft in orbit around the Moon, NASA was tracking.”
That has begun to change, he noted.
A Chinese rover that is currently on the Moon, as well as some of Beijing’s other lunar activities, have created anxiety in the U.S. space community, Weeden said. “Whether those are justified is a whole other discussion, but they have created concerns.”
The Chinese lunar lander mission that delivered a successful rover was the Chang’e-4, according to a new report titled, “Space Threat Assessment 2020,” which was released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The rover, known as Yutu-2, has been conducting an exploration mission on the far side of the Moon since early 2019, the report said.
Meanwhile, China has plans to launch another robotic lunar exploration mission, the Chang’e-5, later this year as a follow-on mission to the Chang’e-4 with the goal of returning samples from the Moon back to Earth for further study, according to the report.
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said it is unclear whether these actions are aligning with the idea that China is looking to establish military dominance in cislunar space.
“The most interesting thing the Chinese have done that could have military implications is a deployment of the Queqiao relay satellite to Lagrange Point-2,” Cheng said in an interview.
The satellite was deployed in order to maintain contact with the Chang’e-4. It has potential military implications because a data relay satellite set far beyond low-Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit makes the system significantly harder to target or jam, he said.
“In theory you could have something that would serve as a backup to your array of data relay satellites in GEO and below,” he added.
Cheng said the Chinese have continually maintained a holistic view of space.
“Space isn’t really about space,” he said. “Space is about the information that transits over it or is gathered by it. So cislunar space — as GEO has gotten very crowded and LEO is even more crowded — it makes sense that the Chinese would be thinking about cislunar space” as the next place to establish themselves.
China’s space enterprise is highly militarized, Cheng noted.
“The Chinese space program I would say is far more the military with a civilian sort of addendum,” he said. “At the end of 2015 ... the Chinese military had a massive reorganization and one of the things that happened was they pulled space out of the general armaments department.”
Beijing created the Strategic Support Force, or SSF, that realigned space operations with China’s electronic warfare forces and network warfare forces, which includes but is not limited to cyber, he said.
“What we have seen is all of the space infrastructure launch facilities — mission control facilities — were transferred over to SSF,” Cheng said. “You don’t go to cislunar [space] without the active cooperation and participation of the [People’s Liberation Army] because you’re launching from Chinese launch facilities that are run by them.”
The majority of China’s mission control personnel are also trained by the PLA, he noted.
“What are they doing out there? Is this to establish a military dominance?” Cheng questioned. That is “less clear simply because nobody has really used that volume of space for military purposes thus far.”
Meanwhile, China and Russia have pursued an international partnership centered around space capabilities. The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy identifies those two nations as great power competitors and the biggest threats to the U.S. military.
The Russian Space Agency has entered into discussions with the China National Space Administration to pursue cooperative lunar exploration missions beginning this year.
The concerns raised by these missions have created a push for the United States to increase its focus on cislunar awareness, Weeden said.
Although agencies such as NASA are already working with private companies on collision avoidance for satellites in lunar orbit, up until now it hasn’t been an area of focus for the Defense Department, Weeden said.
“The Space Development Agency has been looking at this and they haven’t really gone public with any details, but they’ve said they are looking at options for how to do cislunar space domain awareness,” he said.
The agency was established last year to take a new approach to modernizing space-based capabilities.
The SDA focuses on space domain awareness, which includes being able to observe what’s going on and hopefully deter nefarious activity, Weeden said.
Pentagon officials are concerned about Russian and Chinese anti-satellite capabilities, as well as space debris and other objects that could interfere with U.S. systems.
Originally, the SDA planned to build cislunar tracking capabilities into its first constellation of new satellites, which is expected to be launched into low-Earth orbit by 2022, the agency’s director, Derek Tournear, told reporters in April.
“Deterrence is one of the capabilities that we would use to sense objects that are at GEO out to cislunar so that … we could determine whether or not they were a threat,” Tournear said. That was “part of our original architecture that we had in our tranche zero and one that we wanted to build out and fly.”
However, the Defense Department decided to cut those capabilities due to funding constraints, Tournear said.
“Right now, that is not funded. It is only funded for the study phases,” he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has tapped startup company Rhea Space Activity to lead a project to develop technology to surveil cislunar space. The Washington, D.C.-based organization will work with project partner Saber Astronautics to collect and disseminate “lunaspatial intelligence.”
“Akin to Earth-focused geospatial intelligence (GEOINT), lunaspatial intelligence (LUNINT) is defined as the collection of intelligence to monitor activity in cislunar space, as well as on the lunar surface,” Rhea Space Activity said in a press release.
The project will include the development of a “LUNINT dashboard, centered on a graphically enhanced three-dimensional situational awareness portal that will derive precise coordinates of notable objects in lunar space and on the lunar surface,” the company said.
The project partners will also recommend a satellite constellation architecture to monitor cislunar spacecraft.
Rhea Space Activity physicist Cameo Lance said a new lunar intelligence discipline would help the U.S. government keep tabs on advanced adversaries.
“We’ve recently seen a significant uptick of spacecraft headed to cislunar space by our near-peer competitors,” to include China successfully landing a probe on the far side of the Moon and using a satellite at the Earth-Moon L2 point to relay communications back home, Lance said in the release.
Escalating tensions with China are a concern for the United States to consider as the military begins to seek capabilities for situational awareness in cislunar space. Many of the issues posed by potential Chinese activities, such as space-based solar power, asteroid mining and others, have all been debated in the United States previously, Weeden said.
“When I see China’s writing about how space is the ultimate high ground and, ‘We have to dominate space,’ that is nearly word-for-word out of stuff from the U.S. military ... [during] the 1990s through the early 2000s,” he said.
The “huge question is: how much is China echoing what they’ve heard us talking about for the longest time and what a lot of advocates in the U.S. space community still push and propose?” he added. “How much of this is actually something they’ve come to independently? … That’s a huge unknown.”
Another unknown is the future role of the U.S. Space Force. The new branch of the military was established in December and is still being fleshed out.
The Space Force has so far taken on duties that Air Force Space Command previously performed, Weeden noted. However, questions remain as to how the new military branch will evolve.
“Is the future of the Space Force’s activities essentially the same as Air Force Space Command ... to support enhanced terrestrial warfighting?” Weeden said. “Or is the future of the Space Force going to be the priority on space and space-to-space operations and warfighting activities, and supporting the terrestrial stuff becomes a secondary mission?”
Weeden said the vast majority of military leaders that he has spoken with argue option one, which sets the Space Force’s primary focus on supporting terrestrial-based operations.