China Space: Earlier this month, China made history by becoming the first country to land softly on the far side of the moon.
What makes this mission especially difficult is that, unlike those on the near side, this one never has a direct view of Earth.
To communicate, the rover has to use a special relay satellite, positioned between them.
But for all that extra work, the Chang’e 4 gives China international recognition.
It’s not just another landing among many.
China Space Tips
And this is just the beginning.
In 2017, France spent two billion dollars on space, Russia, three billion, the European Space Agency, six, and China, eleven.
And sure, that’s still far less than NASA, at almost 20 billion.
But the U.S. also spends three times more on healthcare for the same life expectancy, so money isn’t everything.
China is also opening up to private space companies, which quietly compete with those in America, like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
Spacey, for example, specializes in micro-satellites weighing as little as 3 pounds each, a previously unfilled, but profitable, niche.
This rapid increase in Chinese investment in space will generate thousands of jobs and countless scientific discoveries.
But it isn’t just about space, It’s also a calculated, military strategy with global consequences.
30,000 feet in the air, moving 800 kilometers per hour, you can watch this very video thanks to the $260 billion a year industry that is satellites.
With them, we can predict the weather, snoop on our neighbors, and, of course, watch TV.
For free, by the way, if you live in Dish,Texas, which legally changed its name in 2005 in exchange for 200 free channels.
Could be worse.
But perhaps most important are the 31 satellites which form the Global Positioning System.
Cargo ships, carrying 90% of the world’s goods, use it to navigate.
Precision farming makes plowing, planting, and fertilizing vastly more efficient.
Pilots use it to fly, Surveyors to measure boundaries, and you and I, to get delivered the finest Italian cuisine money can buy.
But determining where you are is, arguably, not even its most important function.
It’s also the world’s clock – keeping the time for everything from the New York Stock Exchange, to credit card transactions,
and ATMs, with an accuracy of one billionth of a second.
It’s no exaggeration to call GPS one of the foundations of the global economy.
So, what does it cost?
If you’re an American taxpayer, it’s ”included”.
But for everyone else, this $1.4 billion a year service is provided 100% free.
There’s just one catch: GPS is owned and operated by the United States Air Force.
Like the internet, it was originally developed by and only for, the military.
But in 1983, Korean Air flight 007 from Anchorage to Seoul made a very costly navigation mistake.
Instead of flying around restricted Soviet airspace, it unintentionally flew over the Kamchatka peninsula, and on the same day as
a missile test at the same location.
After tracking the aircraft for over an hour, it was shot down, killing all 269 people on board.
To prevent this from happening again, President Reagan made GPS freely available for civilian use.
And in 2000, President Clinton ended Selective Availability, granting everyone, not just the military, access the same level of accuracy.
Officially, quote “It is not the intent of the U.S. to ever use Selective Availability again.”,
Which, notably, is not the same as “We can’t deny access ever again”.
During the war between India and Pakistan in 1999, the U.S. refused to give India access to GPS data.
Much more recently, in 2012, a disabled GPS satellite was blamed for a failed Russia-India missile test.
That uncertainty is enough to make foreign countries nervous.
And now consider that this hugely important, economy-running technology can be interrupted with a $10 spoofing device.
Because GPS signals are weak by the time they reach the ground, it’s remarkably easy to emit a stronger, competing signal.
This device, for example, can trick nearby cars into going the wrong way or crashing into other vehicles.
In 2008, Newark airport became the first in America to use the FAA’s NextGen GPS system for tracking planes, which frequently, inexplicably stopped working.
A three-year investigation found a trucker on the nearby New Jersey Turnpike using a GPS jammer to stop his employer from tracking him.
Like the drone which shut down the UK’s second busiest airport in December, GPS jamming is so dangerous because it costs so little to do so much damage.
One, single drone, 100,000 passengers, and 760 flights affected.
For all these reasons, several countries are launching their own alternatives to GPS.
Russia has GLONASS, The EU has Galileo, and China, Beidou.
Technically, none of these systems are directly competing.
60% of receivers use at least two of them simultaneously.
But it’s also in each country’s interest to control as much navigation as possible.
It’s also part of China’s goal to secure its claim to the South China Sea.
The problem is, just about everyone is watching, including the U.S., which routinely sends ships to patrol the region.
In October, one of them nearly collided with a Chinese destroyer.
So, the challenge for China is asserting its claim without risking conflict between 2 nuclear powers.
Its solution is nicknamed the “little blue men” – local fishermen sponsored by the government to work in the area and report foreign activity to the military.
This way, it asserts its claim, benefits economically, and does so in a less-threatening way.
But these fishermen have become a target for nearby countries, like Indonesia.
Which is where Beidou comes in.
Unlike GPS, China’s version allows receivers to send short messages and request military assistance.
It gives fishermen the full power of the People’s Liberation Army without carrying a single weapon.
This is the tension created by China’s ambitions in space.
Whether it’s purely motivated by research and science or not, doesn’t really matter.
Either way, it’s going to be interpreted aggressively by established powers like the United States.
Space technology is, at least for now, closely tied to the military.
It’s just one more way the world will have to adapt to, or risk escalation with, the meteoric rise of China.
Investing in space is about exploring the unknown for the sake of discovering new things.
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