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China’s Space Exploration and China-U.S. Scientific Cooperation

Oct 02, 2021
  • Eric Harwit

    Professor, University of Hawaii Asian Studies Program

In December 2020, a key member of President-elect Joe Biden’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) transition team urged cooperation with China on space exploration. Pam Melroy argued “trying to exclude [the Chinese] I think is a failing strategy … It’s very important we engage.” By late June 2021, the former astronaut Melroy was named NASA’s deputy administrator, and as such entered a position to advance this agenda. 

In many ways, American hands are tied as the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 federal spending bill clause, prohibits NASA or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from using federal funds to coordinate any joint scientific activity with China. While NASA seeks partnerships with Canada, Australia, Japan, and others for its Artemis moon exploration project, and for its related moon to Mars exploration approach, China is shut out from these potential joint efforts. 

However, other avenues could allow China and the U.S. to cooperate in space exploration, ones not tied to funding from NASA or the OSTP. In particular, ground-based and perhaps space-based telescopes, which scientists rely on to facilitate much of their astronomical research in detecting and analyzing cosmic phenomena, could be a bridge for cooperation and collaboration between Chinese and American scientific endeavors. 

China has recently taken a lead in building some of the world’s most sophisticated terrestrial telescopes. Following planning that began in 1994, the Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST) was completed in Guizhou province in 2016 and began formal operations in 2020. Until FAST’s appearance, the U.S. had hosted the world’s largest single aperture telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. However, the 305 meter Arecibo radio telescope ignominiously collapsed in December 2020, following years of hurricane damage and financial challenges. FAST could serve as a desirable alternative for American radio astronomers, as it is 2.5 times more sensitive than Arecibo was, and can effectively explore a four-fold larger volume of the universe. 

Despite the current state of political relations between the Chinese and U.S. governments, and the restrictions placed on both NASA and OSTP cooperation, American scientific use of Chinese ground-based telescopes can still be facilitated through formal or informal exchanges of observation time, a long-established custom between astronomers exploiting identical wavelength ranges in their observations. For radio wave astronomers, such exchanges would circumvent Wolf amendment restrictions, as no direct federal expenditures would be involved. 

As early as September 2019, West Virginia University radio astronomy professor Maura McLaughlin expressed her interest in using FAST to study highly magnetized rotating compact stars called “pulsars,” saying she was “super excited to be able to use the telescope.” By early 2021, FAST had found more than 300 pulsars and expected to reach 1000 by 2026. 

In January 2021, the National Astronomical Observatories of China, which operates FAST, announced foreign scientists could make online appointments to use the telescope later in the year, with observations beginning August 1. Some 10 percent of observation time was to be awarded to international projects. In mid-July, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry arranged a tour of the FAST for foreign envoys to highlight the possibilities for cooperation. 

China has other space research projects that could propel it further past current American capabilities. For example, the Qitai Radio Telescope (QTT) being constructed in Xinjiang autonomous region, at 110 meters, will be the world’s largest fully steerable single-dish radio telescope when completed in 2023. It will surpass in size the current world-leading steerable West Virginia-based Green Bank Telescope. In addition to seeking out pulsars, the QTT will also map distant galaxies and perhaps aid in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a project that could reveal the ultimate astronomical prize. 

China is also cooperating with Europe and other international partners - but without American participation - to build the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a collection of thousands of radio telescopes based in Australia and South Africa. The SKA is set to be fully operational in 2030. 

Even more ambitious is the Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST), which is planned for launch in 2024. The telescope will have a field of view 300 times larger than that of America’s 31-year old Hubble Space Telescope. The CSST will observe ultraviolet and visible light, and aim to investigate properties of dark matter and dark energy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. currently operates only two major NASA space-based observatories, Hubble and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and both are close to the end of their lifespan. The U.S.’s cutting-edge James Webb Space telescope, scheduled to launch in late 2021 after long delays and cost overruns, will operate at complementing infrared wavelengths. 

Ground-based observatories present the greatest promise for China-U.S. space exploration cooperation, as they fall outside the legal barriers preventing scientists from the two nations from sharing scientific resources. And if NASA deputy administrator Melroy has her way, the U.S. space administration may similarly be able to skirt some of the current restrictions on working with Chinese space researchers. Without greater cooperation with the Chinese, American scientists could miss out on the opportunities afforded by the new technologies China is introducing for further discoveries in space exploration.

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