- The size of the neighborhood in low Earth orbit has now officially doubled.
- China launched the final piece of its new Tiangong space station.
- China has now become a major space power.
The 18-meter lab module, named Mengtian (meaning “dreaming of the heavens”), enables a range of scientific experiments and now allows the station to accommodate up to six people at a time. It currently hosts commander Chen Dong and two other astronauts.
It’s a significant accomplishment for China’s rapidly growing space program, which plans to build a base on the moon, deploy a lunar rover, and send new landers and orbiters to Mars. It’s also the first long-term neighbor the International Space Station has had since Russia’s Mir station was deorbited in 2001. “This is important for the Chinese space program. The International Space Station won’t run for much longer…” says Fabio Tronchetti, a space law professor at Beihang University in Beijing.
The Chinese space program plans to have Tiangong last for 10 to 15 years, with the possibility of extending its lifespan, Tronchetti says. The much larger ISS, operated by the United States, the European Space Agency, Russia, and other partners, could be retired as soon as 2030.
Throughout humanity’s history of space exploration and crewed spaceflight, those activities have been dominated by the US and its allies including Europe, Canada, and Japan—and by Russia, whose space program has lately been in decline. China has now accomplished what Russia and the US did a few decades ago, and it did so quickly, on its own, with some improvements over previous designs.
The Chinese Way
Although preparation for the station began in 2011, including the launch of the first of the two test versions, it took China only one and a half years to build Tiangong. The core module, Tianhe, launched in April 2021, and the first astronauts arrived that June. The T-shaped station, with two lab modules connected to the core, is similar in size to Mir, the groundbreaking space station that operated in the 1980s and ’90s. But although it’s smaller than the ISS, says Jan Osburg, an aerospace engineer at the Rand Corporation, “on the inside they have some creature comfort features that improve habitability and therefore astronaut productivity: less clutter, more wireless rather than cabling, and a microwave in space.”
The space program may also attach a robotic telescope to it in the future, although the station itself is not likely to grow much bigger, says Osburg. As with the ISS, China’s station will offer some opportunities for partnerships, through which other countries can send experiments, and perhaps later also astronauts, to Tiangong. But unlike the ISS, which continually depends on the cooperation and support of its partners, China has different priorities for Tiangong, says Marissa Herron, a space policy researcher at Rand and a colleague of Osburg’s.
NASA won’t be one of those partners. The agency is prohibited from collaborating by what’s commonly called the Wolf Amendment, which Congress passed in 2011. It prevents US agencies from working with Chinese companies and agencies due to perceived national security concerns. To replace the ISS, NASA is investing in three possible plans for commercial space stations that would launch as soon as the late 2020s.
Russia is expected to play no major role with Tiangong. The head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, announced earlier this year that it would launch modules for its own new station as early as 2028. The completion of Tiangong shows that China is no longer a rising player in space—it’s now one of a few powers. And like other powers, China must now confront a problem: how to take out the garbage that goes along with maintaining a space station.
Yet the last two Long March rocket stages that China’s space agency used to lift modules for the station both came crashing down. While one fell into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives. While China does have significant space military capabilities, as do the US and Russia, the space station doesn’t add to those, says David Burbach, a national security affairs expert at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Similar to the ISS and Mir, Tiangong has no military purpose and is designed primarily to facilitate scientific research.
To Osburg, the completion of Tiangong has other geopolitical implications for the United States. “We can no longer take for granted that we’re the big dogs in space,” he says.
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