China is making a big effort to increase cooperation in space technology with Western countries. Li Xue, the country's vice-minister for astronautics, said during a recent visit to Britain that China wants to take Western satellites into orbit using its own launcher. It is also keen on joint development work in, for example, satellite technology.
The country intends to commercialize its Long March 3 satellite launcher as soon as possible, Mr. Li said. China has yet to decide on fees for using the rocket but has hinted they will be comparable to those charged for the West European Ariane rocket and the United States space shuttle.
Li said that Western companies with satellites to launch would be permitted to visit China's rocket sites to inspect facilities. He hoped to start ``general discussions'' soon with companies that are potential customers.
China has launched into orbit about 16 satellites with its rockets, which are derived from ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads. The country's satellites have been used mainly for military surveillance or scientific experiments. Last year Long March 3 launched an experimental communications satellite into geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth. 2 During the visit to Britain last month, Li signed an agreement with the British government for joint space projects. China has similar understandings with West Germany, Italy, the US, and France.
Li said that China is still evaluating an offer by the US to take into orbit a Chinese astronaut on a shuttle flight, possibly in 1986 or 1987. Collaborative work between the two countries is proceeding in some areas of space science, including joint research into astronomy and into the effects of radiation on satellites.
Possible joint projects with Britain include cooperation on an astronomy satellite, which could be placed in orbit on a Chinese launcher. China is also talking to Marconi Space Systems Ltd., a British company, about buying ground stations for use in an operational communications satellite network.
Li said that China hopes to deploy the first satellites for such a network within one to three years. Some space vehicles would be developed by China's own industry, while others would be bought from the West. Li said that in any satellite deals with Western companies, it would be important for the foreign organization to share its technology with Chinese engineers so that China can learn from its overseas contacts. 3 The first contract with a European or US company is likely to be for a television broadcasting satellite. Li said China is evaluating three bids and should decide on the winning contender in April. The satellite would be launched on either Ariane or the space shuttle in a couple of years. Further satellites in the TV broadcasting network could be launched on the Long March 3.
The three bids have been submitted by RCA of the US, MBB of Germany in collaboration with Aerospatiale (France) and Ford (US), and a consortium of Matra of France with British Aerospace.