New Space Race

August 4, 2017 – Volume 27, Issue 28
Is the U.S. falling behind Russia and China? By Patrick Marshall

Short Features

China Challenges U.S. Dominance in Space
Orbiting Debris Poses a Growing Threat

“China arguably has become a space superpower.”

When the Chinese blew up one of their own weather satellites a decade ago to test an anti-satellite missile, sending thousands of pieces of debris potentially into the path of other countries’ spacecraft, U.S. scientists and officials reacted with shock and alarm.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell accused the Chinese of escalating the “weaponization of space,” and a White House official derided them for violating a “spirit of cooperation” between the United States and China in the use of space.1

Since then, China has made rapid advances in its space program. Western observers say Beijing's top goal in space is national security, followed by international prestige, projection of power and competition for space-related business.

“Chinese military writings emphasize the importance of establishing space dominance … as the key to winning future local wars,” says Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. He says the People's Liberation Army “pretty much” runs China's space program.

Adds Peter Singer, a national security analyst at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, “China arguably has become a space superpower.”

China did not send its first astronaut into space until 2003. Five years later, a Chinese astronaut took the country's first spacewalk, and in 2011 China launched a small space station. The country has conducted multiple unmanned lunar exploration missions and, according to one report, has studied the feasibility of sending a manned mission to the moon.2

In November 2016, representatives of China and the European Space Agency discussed collaborating on establishing a human outpost on the moon.3 And last year for the first time, China surpassed Russia in successful space launches and matched the 22 by NASA and U.S. aerospace companies.4

China spent about $6.1 billion on all space-related programs in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available. The United States spent about $39.3 billion (including about $18 billion at NASA), and Russia spent about $5.3 billion. 5

However, figures for China's spending on space are misleading, said James A. Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

“Chinese budget figures are opaque, disguise some sources of funding, and do not reflect differences in purchasing power,” Lewis told a congressional hearing last September.6

Some Chinese officials reportedly are pushing the government to triple spending on the country's space programs.7

Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space, said the United States isn't taking China seriously enough as a potential threat in space.

“The strategic choices we make clearly impact China's space capabilities — something that we should all pay attention to given that China's civil space activities are inseparable from their military,” he said at the same congressional hearing where Lewis testified.8

China's expanding space program also may mean increasing competition for U.S. aerospace companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada. “They're looking for business around the world,” Singer says of the Chinese. “There is going to be competition even in the private space realm.”

China has built and launched satellites for Nigeria, Venezuela, Pakistan and Bolivia, signed contracts for satellites with Belarus, Laos and Sri Lanka and agreed to build and launch a satellite for Venezuela, according to a U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report. The report says Chinese satellites are cheaper than those sold by other countries, and “China offers a competitive package that includes launch services, training for local operators and low-cost loans through its export-import bank.”9

Lewis says the United States, which has relied on Russia for access to the International Space Station since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011, is falling behind in what some experts say is a “new space race.”

“We are sitting on our laurels,” he says. “We are the rabbit and China is the tortoise.”

— Patrick Marshall

[1] Marc Kaufman and Dafna Linzer, “China Criticized for Anti-Satellite Missile Test,” The Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2007,; William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “China Tests Anti-Satellite Weapon, Unnerving U.S.,” The New York Times, Jan. 18, 2007,

[2] Kevin Pollpeter, Eric Anderson, Jordan Wilson, Fan Yang, “China Dream, Space Dream: China's Progress in Space Technologies and Implications for the United States,” report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 2, 2015,

[3] Matthew Brown, “China talking with European Space Agency about moon outpost,”, April 26, 2016,

[4] Clay Dillow, “China's secret plan to crush SpaceX and the US space program,”, March 28, 2017,

[5] Joe Myers, “The rise and rise of China's space programme — in numbers,” World Economic Forum, Oct. 24, 2016,

[6] Testimony of James Lewis before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space, Sept. 27, 2016,

[7] Dillow, op. cit

[8] Statement of Rep. Brian Babin before the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space, Sept. 27, 2016,

[9] Ibid

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Experts say global cooperation is needed to avoid spacecraft damage.

An estimated 150 million pieces of space debris whiz constantly around the Earth. Moving at about 5 miles per second, this “space junk” — ranging from tiny flecks of paint to bulky stages of discarded launch vehicles — poses a growing threat to satellites.10

“In orbit, these objects … [are] faster than a bullet and can damage or destroy functioning space infrastructure, like economically vital telecom, weather, navigation, broadcast and climate-monitoring satellites,” Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) debris office, told a conference on space debris in April.11

About 5,000 pieces of space debris are more than three feet long, according to one expert. And about 20,000 measure more than four inches.12

An illustration of Earth created by the National Aeronautics (Getty Images/NASA)  
An illustration of Earth created by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1989 graphically shows space debris in low-Earth orbit. (Getty Images/NASA)

So far, the debris has caused only minor damage, including a 16-inch gash that a piece of orbiting junk punched in the solar panel of an ESA satellite last August.13

But scientists say more-serious strikes are inevitable. As early as 1978, NASA astrophysicists warned that as space debris accumulates, more collisions will occur, spawning still more collisions in a cascading effect that will be impossible to halt.14

Two agencies — NASA and the Defense Department's Space Command — track satellites and space debris using ground-based radar and telescopes on land and in space.

But that equipment only tracks objects at least four inches long, and scientists say fragments as small as 0.04 of an inch can cause significant damage.15

The problem became more severe after Jan. 11, 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon by firing an unarmed missile at one of its own defunct weather satellites orbiting at an altitude of 534 miles. The collision created more than 3,000 pieces of debris that still threaten other objects in orbit. One analyst called the test “the most prolific and severe fragmentation in the course of five decades of space operations.”16

By 1987, U.S. and European space agencies had begun work on what would eventually become the Interagency Space Debris Coordination Committee. The committee is made up of government officials from 13 countries, including the United States, Russia and China. The countries are responsible not only for their own governments’ satellites but also for satellites owned by private companies within their borders.

The committee issued space debris mitigation guidelines in 2007, but member countries are not implementing them, according to Krag and other experts. Krag says only 60 percent of satellites are disposed of as the committee recommends.17

The committee's guidelines say satellites nearing the end of their useful life should be parked out of orbit or burned up in Earth's atmosphere to keep them from colliding with other satellites and creating debris, says Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington focused on security issues. But he says satellite operators prefer to keep dying satellites in service until they use up every last bit of their expensive fuel.

“If you put a satellite up and that satellite is a revenue generator, you want to extract the most money from that investment,” Krepon says. He warns that unless countries agree to enforce the guidelines, “we will lose space like we're losing fisheries in the ocean.”

Rolf Densing, the ESA's director of operations, told a recent conference, “This problem can only be solved globally.”18

Some economists suggest imposing a user fee on space launches to pay for debris mitigation.19 A British company has proposed a system — called Necropolis — that would collect defunct satellites and move them into an orbit that active satellites don't use. And researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have proposed pushing pieces of space junk into higher orbit by firing beams of electrons at them.20

The ESA plans a RemoveDEBRIS mission this year to test a net that could be used to drag pieces of space junk into the atmosphere to burn up. It also will test a “dragsail” — like the sail on a boat but pushed by photons of light from the sun instead of wind — to accomplish the same objective.21

James A. Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, says dealing with space debris is the most obvious starting point for international cooperation in space. He calls it one of the few issues where “we can possibly get some utility out of a new agreement.”

— Patrick Marshall

[10] “Frequently Asked Questions: Orbital Debris,” NASA, undated, Richard Ingham, “Space debris problem getting worse, say scientists,”, April 18, 2017,

[11] Sarah Knapton, “750,000 pieces of debris orbiting Earth threaten future of spaceflight, warn experts,” The Telegraph, April 21, 2017,

[12] Ingham, op. cit.

[13] Tereza Pultarova, “Experts Call for Legislation and Improved Tracking to Deal with Orbital Debris,” Space News, April 25, 2017,

[14] Brad Plumer, “Space trash is a big problem. These economists have a solution,” The Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2013,

[15] Pultarova, op. cit.

[16] Brian Weeden, “2007 Chinese Anti-Satellite Test Fact Sheet,” Secure World Foundation, updated Nov. 23, 2010,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ingham, op. cit.

[19] Plumer, op. cit.

[20] Pultarova, op. cit.

[21] Tereza Pultarova, “Meet the Space Custodians: Debris Cleanup Plans Emerge,”, April 26, 2017,

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Document APA Citation
Marshall, P. (2017, August 4). New space race. CQ researcher, 27, 653-676. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2017080420
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