Chinese news agency Xinhua put in public new Chinese objectives in space program. It is even more interesting because that information is probably based on interview with high-ranking military.
From the beginning Chinese space program was never divided into civilian and military subprograms. It happened that military satellites were covered as civilian or scientific missions (very often that civilian remote sensing satellite for urban planning proved to be strictly military satellite) and due the very limited information for public opinion and created impression that Chinese armed forces subdued whole space program. Of course it was not truth – in spite of many commercial and strictly civilian launches China has many scientific and research space programs which are not part of any military program. But it should be remembered that Chinese People’s Liberation Army was sponsor of many crucial projects and was one of the biggest customers. It was also best advertisement for Chinese space industry. Many technologies like Beidou navigation system thanks to be utilized and ordered by Chinese Military became good export commodity (Beidou won competition with GPS in contest for new navigation system for Pakistani army). It should not be surprising that voice of the any high-rank representative of Chinese armed forces should be listened very carefully because PLA has lot to say in matter of space program in China. Presented by Xinhua statements of Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin are important sign of new ways of development of Chinese space program not without reason. Zhang Yulin is Doctor of Engineering from the Department of Industrial Automation of Zhejiang University and since 2011 Deputy Director of the PLA General Armaments Department.
On 7 March 2016 (according to Xinhua) Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin announced that after successful establishing Chinese space station, China should start exploration of the space between Earth and Moon mainly with possessing resources in mind. Unfortunately it was not clearly declared, if Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin considered planned for 2016 Tiangong-2 or next planned Tiangong-3 or target large multimodular space station. It was only mentioned that such exploration should start after 2020. We can assume that Zhang Yulin probably thought about Tiangong-3 but it is unknown if Tiangong will be any part of new exploration program. It was only confirmed that first works were already started. Most interesting is opinion by Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin about possibility of Moon exploration for resources. It sounds that China is seriously considering exploration of space resources. After USA and Belgium which prepared special space exploration acts China is trying to jump over the competitors and became a leader (China military would not rather wait for special laws or acts if it will consider that some actions are necessary). But purpose of space mining is not commercial in case of China. Water from ice on the Moon could be used for production of rocket fuel (oxygen and hydrogen) in space and silicon dioxide, which is easily reachable on the Moon, could be used for manufacturing solar arrays. According to Xinhua, both resources would be used in orbital power plant. It could provide rocket propellant which would be electrolyzed from water with using electricity from solar arrays. Such station could be fully automatic and create new perspectives for Mars mission. According to Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin it is important to utilize current possibilities:
“The future of China’s manned space program, is not a moon landing, which is quite simple, or even the manned Mars program which remains difficult, but continual exploration the earth-moon space with ever developing technology.”
He also put stress for maximum use of the experiences gained from the current manned spaceflights for more ambitious goals in future like manned Mars mission. But even if manned Mars mission will be impossible for next decades, space exploration with automatic spacecrafts is reality. It seems that China is preparing for changing priorities of their space program: from commercial launch vehicles to creating space infrastructure remaining constantly in space. Establishing power plants in space (just like gas stations) which could provide necessary fuel for spacecrafts would highly extend range of space exploration and reduce future costs. Of course it would also help in further space mining or any kind of deep space exploration – it probably would be necessary in case if no fully electric propulsion will not be invented. For sure such concept like establishing space gas station would bring undeniable profits whoever makes the first and Chinese are definitely have just made first step.