11 June 2012

Microsatellites: A Bellwether of Chinese Aerospace Progress?

Andrew S. Erickson, “Microsatellites: A Bellwether of Chinese Aerospace Progress?” in Lisa Parks and James Schwoch, eds., Down to Earth: Satellite Technologies, Industries, and Cultures (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 254-79.

Central to China’s rise in space–no less important than its becoming the third nation to test an anti-satellite weapon (on January 11, 2007) and the third to orbit an astronaut (on October 15, 2003)–is its rapid development of microsatellites. Microsatellites (weighing 10 to 100 kilograms, or far less than the average satellite) are believed by both Western and Chinese analysts to represent the key to improving space capabilities by lowering the cost of establishing a robust presence in space with built-in redundancy to ensure system continuity. They do so by enabling mass production and modularization, and through their flexible use in multi-satellite constellations for such applications as communications. For all these reasons, microsatellites will be the focus of this chapter. To be sure, microsatellites cannot be separated entirely from their larger counterparts in function and significance. This chapter will consider small satellites (those weighing up to 500 kg) and their microsatellite “cousins” (which weigh less than 100 kg). Satellites weighing more than 500 kg, such as the 2200 kg Beidou navigation satellites, are beyond the scope of this study.

China’s increasingly sophisticated microsatellites are a vital element of Beijing’s overall aerospace development, but to what end? Small/microsatellite production offers Beijing three major benefits: support for national development, lucrative and geostrategically relevant foreign sales, and potential military space control applications. The first two benefits have provided a major motivation for Chinese microsatellite development thus far, and may well be the most important current benefit. In foreign sales, for example, Chinese satellites (albeit of larger ones, thus far), components, and launch and training services have performed relatively well by giving developing nations otherwise unaffordable access to space.

China today has only a fraction of the overall space capability of the United States, has major gaps in coverage in every satellite application, and relies to a considerable extent on technology acquired through nonmilitary programs with foreign companies and governments. But China is combining this new knowledge with increasingly robust indigenous capabilities to produce potent advances of its own. China’s satellite developers are experimenting with a new workplace culture that emphasizes modern management, standardization, quality control (including ISO 9000 management initiatives), and an emerging capacity for mass production—part of a larger trend in China’s dual-use military-technological projects. …

From the Publisher

Down to Earth presents the first comprehensive overview of the geopolitical maneuvers, financial investments, technological innovations, and ideological struggles that take place behind the scenes of the satellite industry. Satellite projects that have not received extensive coverage—microsatellites in China, WorldSpace in South Africa, SiriusXM, the failures of USA 193 and Cosmos 954, and Iridium—are explored. This collection takes readers on a voyage through a truly global industry, from the sites where satellites are launched to the corporate clean rooms where they are designed, and along the orbits and paths that satellites traverse. Combining a practical introduction to the mechanics of the satellite industry, a history of how its practices and technologies have evolved, and a sophisticated theoretical analysis of satellite cultures, Down to Earth opens up a new space for global media studies.


“Grounded in fact and garnished with theory, this volume both excites and builds on a renewed appreciation for satellites…a treasurehouse of materials for people who want to figure out the technical colonization of the air!”

(John Durham Peters author of Speaking into the Air )

“Philosophers have looked upward into the starry heavens and been filled with wonder and awe. Down to Earth reverses the gaze, revealing how satellites impinge on so many aspects of our lives. Read it before Skynet goes online.”

(James Der Derian Brown University )

About the Author

LISA PARKS is a professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual and coeditor of Planet TV: A Global Television Reader.

JAMES SCHWOCH is the senior associate dean for the School of Communication at Northwestern University in Qatar, and a professor at Northwestern University. His research explores the nexus of global media, media history, international studies, and global security.