The rise of the Chinese aerospace sector

The rise of the Chinese aerospace sector

By Ritvik Sinha

The remnants of the 20th century Space Race today take  the form of countries aspiring to venture into the great unknown. China is one such country, “poised to become a true aerospace giant during the 21st [century].” Below, we chart the rise of the Chinese aerospace sector, from its 1950s liftoff to its pioneering present and future.


China first began a ballistic missile program in 1958, while 1960 saw the launch of the T-7 sounding rocket. What followed was a series of successful launches and developments until 1967, when the government founded its own crewed space program. The 52 years since then have witnessed programs like the Long March rocket series, the founding of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the successful missions of 11 taikonauts.

Satellite launches:

October 2019 has seen China launch two satellites:

  1.  The microwave remote sensing observation satellite Gaofen-10, launched aboard a Long March-4C rocket (the 314th Long March carrier) on October 5.
  2.  A communications technology experiment satellite, launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center aboard the 315th Long March rocket carrier on October 17.

Indeed, China has a vaunted history when it comes to satellite launches. Its launching of a rocket from a mobile platform in the Yellow Sea made it only the third country ever to master sea launches.

Future plans include further test flight launches in the Smart Dragon series in 2020 and 2021. The first, the 23-ton Smart Dragon 1, successfully delivered three satellites into orbit two months ago. With the ability to send 500-kg and 1.5-ton payloads respectively, Smart Dragon 2 and Smart Dragon 3 will definitely be noteworthy launches.

Lunar ambitions:

China’s ambitions do not end there. The Chang’e program has sent spacecraft to the moon with increasing success since 2007. That year saw the launch of Chang’e 1 on a 16-month lunar mapping mission. 

Since then, 2010’s Chang’e 2 has sent back a high-resolution map of the moon’s surface and 2013’s Chang’e 3 has become the first Chinese spacecraft to land successfully on the moon.

It is 2019’s Chang’e 4, however, that is making the most waves for its successful touchdown on the far side of the moon.

Yutu-2 on the far side of the moon. Image courtesy CNSA.


Once there, it added further lunar mystery when its rover, Yutu-2, captured photos of a mysterious “gel-like” substance.

The Martian:

Much like Elon Musk, China is aiming to get as close to Mars as possible. The country’s planned launch of the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover in 2020 aims to send back unprecedented data. The Mars Sample Return Mission (2028-2030) will include in-situ topography and soil composition analyses.

Deeper into space:

But China will not stop at Mars. Future plans include the ZhengHe asteroid exploration mission (2022-2024), which will conduct flyby observations and return samples. The Jupiter System Exploration Mission (2029) will aim to explore Jupiter and its moons. And an expedition to Uranus, proposed tentatively for after 2030, aims to study solar wind and interplanetary magnetic fields alongside China’s exploration of the planet.

Commercialization in the Chinese aerospace sector:

In the vein of SpaceX‘s advances, the Chinese aerospace industry is becoming increasingly commercial. New companies supported by the government produce inexpensive, market-friendly products at a quick pace. 2017 saw 17 Chinese aerospace enterprises receive investments totaling approximately 2.16 billion Yuan ($308.6 million USD).

An influx of government employees setting up private commercial aerospace entities bodes well for the future development of the sector. These include:

  • One Space — the first private company in China to manufacture carrier rockets 
  • China Rocket Co. — a state-owned unit of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation that oversees the Smart Dragon launches
  • iSpace — the Beijing-based company that last July exhibited its reusable rocket, Hyperbola-2 (SpaceX being the only other company to do so).

Made in China:

This all ties in to the government’s Made in China 2025 plan, which is aimed at lowering dependency on foreign technology by developing Chinese alternatives. Ranging from robotics to medicine, the plan would impact the Chinese aerospace industry greatly. 

10 target sectors of the Made in China plan. Source: China Briefing

As a leading aerospace and aviation expert observes, “China is playing the long game. It’s not about the 2020s. China is looking at the next 20, 30, or 40 years.”

Internationally speaking:

But it is also important to place Chinese aerospace advancements within the context of those of other nations. NASA has a slew of upcoming projects, including 2025’s Europa Clipper, which will study Europa through a series of flybys. 2021’s Lucy, the first mission to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, and the Mars 2020 rover also fall within NASA’s remit.

India is not far behind either. 2014’s Mangalyaan Martian probe made it only the fourth country to reach Martian orbit. 2017 saw the launch of PSLV-C37, which successfully carried along with it a record 104 satellites

After the recent landing of its lunar mission Chandrayaan-2, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans for a further 36 launches in the next two years. These include the 2019-2020 solar probe Aditya-L1 and 2023’s planned Venus mission. Gaganyaan, India’s first manned space flight, is also scheduled for crewed launch in 2021.

An international collaboration of note is 2021’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will be jointly produced and overseen by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency.

This all means that while China is not the only country making great strides in the development of the aerospace sector, it certainly looks set to be at the forefront of the field for years to come.

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