Wednesday, January 04, 2017

China's "Propellantless" Future & Five Year Space Plan

          By Brian Orlotti

Over the holiday period, China made two major announcements that signal the increasing ambitions of its space program. These announcements include explorations that will equal those of Western and Russian space programs plus an aggressive pursuit of technology that could place China ahead of both.

As outlined in the September 20th, 2016 Popular Science post, "China's Race to Space Domination," the Chinese government "is well on its way to becoming a space superpower—and maybe even a dominant one." A successful space program is perceived as being a leading indicator of  Chinese "great power status." Graphic c/o Popular Science.  

First of all, as outlined in the December 13th, 2016 International Business Times post, "EmDrive: Chinese space agency to put controversial tech onto satellites 'as soon as possible'," the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) officially confirmed that it has been funding research into the controversial EmDrive radio frequency (RF) resonant cavity thruster and planned to incorporate it into Chinese satellites in the near future.

In addition, the article claimed to have an anonymous Chinese source who has stated that China has conducted testing of an EmDrive onboard its Tiangong-2 space station over the past few months.

CNSA’s announcement was followed a few days later by a press conference held by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) that discussed China’s EmDrive development efforts. The article also quoted Li Feng,  the chief designer of CAST’s communications satellite division, who stated that CAST’s EmDrive currently only produces millinewtons of thrust (on par with NASA's similar EagleWorks’ device) and that further work is needed to bring it up to a functional level of between 100 millinewtons and 1 newton.

Apple software engineer and "astronogamer," Scott Manley discussed the EmDrive in this November 20th, 2016 You-Tube post, "What is the EM Drive? And Does it Really Work?" As outlined in the December 28th, 2016 Next Big Future post, "Jerry Pournelle talks about China's orbital tests of the EMDrive as a bigger than Sputnik moment," Manley is not the only "popularizer" of science to take a recent interest in the EmDrive. However, as outlined in the January 3rd, 2017 Next Big Future post, "EMdrive ground experiments need more rigor or someone can pay for conclusive work in space," most western scientists advocate an extremely cautious approach to assessing EmDrive claims. Screenshot c/o You-Tube.

Although skeptics would argue that the secretive nature of China’s space program casts doubt on these announcements, logic would dictate that negative results would simply go unreported. China would ultimately have little to gain by fabricating an EmDrive success.

In contrast, Western EmDrive efforts remain small-scale and scattershot. Hampered by lack of political support and at times vicious opposition from academia, the only planned EmDrive deployment comes not from NASA but from a small startup.

This company, Theseus Space Inc., was founded in 2016 by Guido Fetta, inventor of the Cannae Drive, an EMDrive offshoot.

Currently fundraising, Theseus has announced no launch date.

The December 27th, 2016 white paper, "China's Space Activities in 2016," which includes a listing of major developments since 2011, major tasks expected to be accomplished in the next five years and policies and measures needed to support future development. Screenshot c/o CNSA.

In parallel with its EmDrive announcements, China has also released a white paper outlining its space policy for the next five years. It highlights include:
  • The construction of a permanent space station. 
  • A Lunar sample return mission.
  • The launch of China’s first Mars orbiter and lander by 2020.
  • Research and development work on a heavy-lift launcher, reusable boosters and satellite servicing systems.
  • Expanded international cooperation in areas including remote sensing, lunar and planetary exploration, and human spaceflight.
As outlined in the December 29th, 2016 Parabolic Arc post, "China Space Program White Paper Outlines Lunar & Mars Missions," the white paper provides "a comprehensive overview of the country’s plans for the next five years."

Western ridicule of foreign technology is nothing new. Prior to the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific campaign of World War II, Westerners dismissed Japan as technologically backward, capable only of crude reverse-engineering. Prior to Sputnik, Russia was also perceived of as backward vis-a-vis the West.

China’s space program, also dismissed as inferior, now appears to be making its big push.

The large scale deployment of EmDrive could prove another "Sputnik moment;" an unpleasant shock to a divided and troubled Western world. Such shocks have, in the past, spurred the West to refocus and redouble its efforts.

It remains to be seen whether our generation can do the same.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.


  1. China is no longer a backward country. It has made tremendous progress in the past 20 years. It should be considered as a first world economy. China has used every means at its disposal to get technology and copy it. Not unlike the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  2. Reluctance of western academic world and of European Space Agencies to investigate the EM-Drive and Mach Effect Thruster potential is a scientific attitude disaster. These ideas were born in West and they have found there only stupid skepticism and discouragement.


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