China Dominating Orbital Space
February 13, 2013: This year China expects to launch 20 satellites and by the end of the decade have 200 satellites in orbit (about a fifth of the total and nearly half as many as the United States). At that point China expects to be launching 30 satellites a year and accounting for over a quarter of the worldwide launch capability. All this momentum has been the result of a quarter century of effort and an enormous spurt of activity in the last two years. In the two decades after 1990 China has carried out 30 commercial satellite launches, putting 36 satellites in orbit. Now China puts that many satellites up in 18 months.
China’s main satellite launcher, the “Long March” rocket, is based on Russian designs, meaning it is simple, cheap and reliable. This has made China a major player in the satellite launching business. China competes on price. The U.S. Space Shuttle was retired because it was the most expensive way get stuff into orbit. Satellites sent up via the Space Shuttle cost $25 million a ton. The Russians and Chinese will do it for $3-6 million a ton. But insurance can more than double that cost if there have been a number of recent failures with Russian and Chinese boosters. This keeps more reliable American and European boosters in business. The Long March has a failure rate of about six percent, which was a little higher than twice the rate for the most used Russian launcher. The Space Shuttle failure rate was two percent, as were most Western satellite launchers.
The Chinese Long March can put 9.5 tons in low earth orbit and 5.5 tons in a high one (geostationary transfer orbit). The Chinese took their time to perfect Long March, requiring 28 years to make the first fifty launches, and nine years for the next fifty. So far, Long March has carried out some 164 launches so far.
Some 900 active satellites are in orbit, and nearly half of them are American. About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military (most of them commercial, the rest government non-military birds.) The Russian Sputnik was the first satellite ever put in orbit, in 1957. The U.S. followed in 1958. Since then, ten other nations have done the same. France launched its first satellite in 1965, Japan and China in 1970, Britain in 1971, and India in 1980. Israel launched its first satellite in 1988. Ukraine did so in 1995. Iran claims to have put a satellite in orbit recently, but there is no conclusive proof. North Korea put a dead (non-responsive) satellite up in December 2012 and South Korea followed with a successful launch of a very active satellite a month later.