At the height of the Cold War, large-scale exploration beyond our planet served as a dramatic stage for the post-nuclear power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. This unsettling tension fueled the early days of the space race—launching new technologies, creating space agencies, and laying the groundwork for future advances in virtually every mechanical aspect of our society.
Between the United States and what is now Russia, the two countries have long been titans of the space industry, but today’s space race has a new rival. Later this year, China will put the finishing touches on the Tiangong (which translates to Heavenly Palace) space station, the country’s first space outpost. The China National Space Administration started the first stage multi-module station more than a decade ago, and now construction of the station will be completed with the addition of the Mengtian Laboratory Cabin, the third and final module needed to complete the compact T-shaped structure. Tiangong Station will become China’s “the most adventurous space endeavors“, the agency states.
Unlike the International Space Station (ISS), which exists thanks to a conglomerate of many other countries and their space agencies, Tiangong will be the only independent space station when it is operational, which is likely to increase geopolitical tensions. The ability to create and maintain such a device in orbit is often a reflection of a country’s overall global power and influence. Still, China’s résumé of successful space ventures, while not particularly strong, was surprisingly rich in the decades before Tiangong – at the end of the 20th century, it was the fifth country in the world to successfully launch a satellite into space. The latest fire fueling their fierce determination is how space science is intertwined with development, including China’s national security, economic progress, and its state-run science and education initiatives.
“It was not always uncontested. It was not always completely consistent,” he says Alanna Krolikovsky, a political scientist at Missouri University of Science and Technology who specializes in science and technology policy. “But China’s leaders have been eyeing space activities for a very long time.”
Much of the country’s initial drive to invest time and resources in the space scene stemmed in part from both international foresight and isolation from many of the early joint space programs. In particular, in the 80s and The 90sthe country faced many internal and economic Challenges (such as the reversal of fiscal and cultural policies that have stifled growth and global trade), but China has quickly realized that the space sector will become a very important area in the coming years, Krolikowski says. This fervent commitment and self-sufficiency to more advanced space exploration is one of the reasons for China’s achievements (and sometimes their failures) were so often in the spotlight.
In recent years, China’s frantic drive to expand its space activities has led to a satellite navigation network (strong enough to compete with the US supported GPS system), an unmanned probe to Marsand the first spacecraft to explore the far side of the moon, Chang-e 4. The discoveries made by the robotic probe’s companion, the semi-autonomous Yutu-2 rover, could also help pave the way for future robotic expeditions to the South Pole of Earth’s satellite.
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At the same time, the country’s commercial space industry is beginning to flourish as many private companies begin launching new vehicles such as cargo spacecraft and other satellites. A fully independent space station could act as a launching pad for future endeavors, taking scientific research to new heights, including advancing China’s long-held goal of having Taikonauts (the Chinese equivalent of NASA astronauts) someday land on the moon. While the station will be the gateway to many planned ventures, Tiangong will be noticeably smaller and have a smaller crew than the International Space Station. Despite these limitations, the ship will have more than enough space to carry out vital scientific experiments.
Together with the second module, Wentian, the recently added Mengtian Module is a nearly 60-foot-long pressurized laboratory where researchers will be able to conduct microgravity experiments as well as other physics and aerospace research for human exploration. Tiangong will also allow China to explore mutually beneficial partnerships with other countries. Once launched, the station will support more than 1,000 experiments during its lifetime, many of which have been submitted by researchers from around the world.
Jonathan McDowellan astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard-Smithsonian University in Cambridge, Mass., and an astronaut historian, is particularly interested in how well the station will support Xuntian, the Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST). While Xuntian is considered a Hubble Space Telescope counterpart because its field of view will be 300 times larger than the 32-year-old observatory’s, McDowell says it’s actually more similar to NASA’s future telescope. Nancy Grace Rome Space Telescope.
“This new generation of telescopes looks at a much larger area of the sky at once, perhaps in less detail. [than Hubble or the James Webb Telescope]” says McDowell. “It’s mapping large areas of the sky, rather than looking at things you already know are there, and sort of fine-tuning.”
It will be some time before any of the telescopes are ready to peer into the abyss, but it is clear that many Chinese projects are following a deliberate repetition of what has already been achieved, applying lessons learned by competitors to advance and improve their own developments. For example, outwardly, the Tiangong station is an almost identical copy of the Russian one Mir space stationwhich survived nearly 15 years in orbit before disintegrating over South Pacific in 2001. One striking difference in China’s design is the nearly 20-foot tall addition robotic arm which will be able to move various modules as well as provide support for other spaceflight activities. As Earth’s atmosphere begins to fill with man-made debris, China’s past is causing trouble uncontrolled missile debris will also need to be better understood if the agency is to support sustainable space exploration. Although there are no public plans for how the country will address these issues in the future, the country remains the first and only one to test experimental space debris mitigation technologies.
NASA is currently prohibited from engaging with China or Chinese-owned enterprises, including providing funding and any other operational partnerships. Future cooperation between Tiangong and the ISS is also highly unlikely, given that any international science effort will be at least partially led by the US. Given the tendency of the United States to take charge in its international operations, China may be wary of joining a partnership that the United States so strongly rejects, says McDowell.
Still, the station is “very attractive to many international partners who don’t have such extensive space programs,” says Krolikowski. “Not only developing countries that want to participate to a lesser extent or in a supporting role, but even major European countries can find attractive areas of cooperation with China.”
Still, while the nation may be lagging behind in adopting the dos and don’ts of responsible space practices, many in the political and scientific community are optimistic that as China’s presence in space grows, they will begin to catch on.
“Over time and as they become space powers,” McDowell says, “they also mature in the sense that they become good space citizens.”