China successfully launched Tianhe-1, the first and main module of Tiangong (Heavenly Palace), a permanent orbiting space station on April 29. In 2022, two more science modules (Wentian and Mengtian) will be added to the station as part of a series of missions that will complete it and allow it to begin operations.
While this is not China’s first station (the country currently has two), the modular architecture is novel. It is a duplicate of the International Space Station (ISS), which China was barred from joining.
China has several reasons to invest in this expensive and extremely difficult undertaking. The first is to carry out scientific study and make medicinal, environmental, and technological advancements. Commercial gain and status are two more conceivable incentives.
Tiangong, on the other hand, does not want to compete with the (ISS). The Chinese station will be smaller and more akin to the former Soviet Mir space station in terms of design and size, which means it will have a limited capacity for humans (three versus six on ISS).
After all, it doesn’t have the same financial backing as the ISS, and it doesn’t involve as many countries. ISS is the closest thing to the United Nations in space, with former Cold War foes (the US and Russia) and longtime friends as collaborators (Japan, Canada and Europe).
Over the course of its two-decade mission, the only permanent human outpost in space has welcomed nearly 250 astronauts from 19 different countries, who have participated in hundreds of spacewalks and thousands of scientific experiments.
However, the ISS is nearing the end of its lifespan. It will be decommissioned in 2024 to make way for the Lunar Gateway, a tiny settlement orbiting the Moon. This is an international endeavor that is part of the US-led Artemis Program, and China is once again left out.
On The Verge of a Chinese Monopoly?
But until the gateway is launched, Tiangong, which will be placed in lower Earth orbit and will have a life expectancy of 15 years, will most likely be the only operational space station.
Some fear that this creates a security risk, claiming that its science components might readily be adapted for military reasons, such as eavesdropping on countries. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it won’t be if everything goes according to plan.
China may take advantage of this chance to regain world trust and collaborate. This is especially relevant in light of NASA‘s condemnation in the aftermath of China’s recent out-of-control rocket that crashed into the Indian Ocean. There are evidence that the country is attempting to become more accessible, with Tiangong already announcing that it will welcome non-Chinese crews and science missions.
International projects have been included in the station’s first approved batch of selected experiments, and astronauts from Europe’s space agency, Esa, have begun training with Chinese “taikonauts.”
Tiangong may not be able to stay alone for long. Private companies have begun designing their own orbital modules, with NASA’s help, ranging from Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable habitat B330 to Axiom’s commercial laboratory and residential facilities.
Blue Origin has also expressed interest in constructing a space station. The Russians seems to appreciate the concept as well, as they have already begun planning a luxurious space hotel.
Furthermore, the ISS’s existing long lifespan may be extended further, despite the fact that there are numerous difficulties surrounding its expiration date.
The Lunar Gateway
The Lunar Gateway will be deployed eventually, thus Tiangong may not be alone for long. The Lunar Gateway will function as a science lab and a short-term housing module in its basic design. It will then serve as a resupply point for spacecraft and rovers on their many journeys to the Moon.
The first flight, with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the critical modules, is scheduled for May 2024. It is expected to be operational in a few years.
The Gateway will be smaller and more maneuverable than the ISS. Only four of the original ISS members (the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada) are included in the Gateway.
Due to the controversy surrounding the Artemis program, which many countries believe is excessively US-centric, Russia has opted out for the time being.
This is another another chance for China. On current space initiatives, it has already begun partnering with other countries. More is on the way. It agreed to develop a joint Russian-Chinese research station on the Moon with Russia’s space agency Roscosmos in March 2021.
After losing its monopoly on manned trips to the (ISS) due to a successful SpaceX launch in 2020, Russia appears eager to keep its options open when it comes to lunar ventures.
Finally, space is both difficult and expensive. While cooperation is a way for many countries to demonstrate dominance, it has already proven to be more effective than lone efforts: the International Space Station is the clearest example of this. We know that, as it did during the Cold War, space exploration can help to alleviate tensions on the ground.
China’s taking a leading role in the new space race could have a similarly positive effect – especially if the country shows goodwill in helping address a growing security problem in low Earth orbit: how to get rid of space junk.