China has just become a space power

China has just become a space power

Low Earth orbit has officially gotten more crowded. On October 31, China launched the last part of its Tiangong modular space station, completing construction. The eighteen-meter laboratory module, renamed Mengtian ("sky dream"), is designed to conduct a series of scientific experiments and allows the station to accommodate up to six people at a time. It is currently occupied by Commander Chen Dong and two other astronauts.

This is a significant achievement for the Chinese space program, which is undergoing a phase of rapid growth and plans to build a base on the Moon, install a lunar rover and to send new landers and orbiters to Mars. Tiangong also represents the first long-term "neighbor" of the ISS (International Space Station) since the Russian Mir was deactivated in 2001. In fact, China had already flown two experimental prototypes of Tiangong between 2011 and 2019. , which however are no longer in orbit. "The ISS will not be operational for much longer. It is possible that we will end up with only one space station in orbit, the Chinese one," explains Fabio Tronchetti, professor of space law at Beihang University in Beijing and the University of Mississippi.

The Chinese acceleration

The Chinese space program expects Tiangong to remain active for ten to fifteen years, with the possibility of extending the period, says Tronchetti. The ISS, much larger and managed by the United States, the European Space Agency (ESA), Russia and other partners, could retire as early as 2030: this is the expiration date that the administration of the US president Joe Biden fixed after extending the mission into 2021. Earlier this year, Russia threatened to withdraw by 2024, due to the geopolitical tensions that followed the invasion of Ukraine. However, space analysts predict that the country will continue to provide its support until 2030.

Representatives of the China National Space Administration, the Chinese space program, did not respond to a request for comment from US, but referred to this April press conference on the progress of the space station. In the history of mankind, the areas of space exploration and manned spaceflight have been dominated by the United States and its allies - including Europe, Canada and Japan - and by Russia, whose space program is lately in a phase of decline. China has now achieved what Russia and the US achieved a few decades ago, and it has done so quickly, on its own, and with some improvements over previous projects.

How Tiangong is made

Although preparation of the station began in 2011, with the launch of the first of two test versions, it took China only a year and a half to build Tiangong. The central module, Tianhe, was launched in April 2021 and the first astronauts arrived in June of the same year. The next module started in July 2022, followed by the final one this week. The T-shaped station, with two laboratory modules connected to the central core, is similar in size to Mir, the revolutionary space station that operated in the 1980s and 1990s. Although it is smaller than the ISS, explains Jan Osburg, an aerospace engineer at Rand Corporation, "inside it has some comfort features that improve the habitability and therefore the productivity of the astronauts: less clutter, more wireless connection instead of cables and a microwave. ".

The Chinese space program could also link a robotic telescope to the station in the future, although the second Osburg Tiangong is not set to get much bigger. The T-shape of the station could limit expansion possibilities, as well as other factors such as the need to manage energy use and remove waste heat (the ISS, which has a lattice structure and huge solar panels, has underwent multiple expansions, although it took many years and launches to put it all together).

International cooperation

Like the ISS, the Chinese station will offer some opportunities for collaboration, allowing they will be able to send experiments to other countries, and perhaps - at a later stage - even astronauts. A Saudi Arabian experiment is already on board; Researchers from European institutions and other countries have proposed experiments on a wide range of topics, from gamma rays to space medicine and atomic clocks. Chinese trading partners could also be involved. However, unlike ISS, which depends on cooperation and support from its partners, China has different priorities for Tiangong, says Marissa Herron, a space policy researcher at Rand and a colleague from Osburg. The goal will probably be to demonstrate Chinese leadership and that it is not necessary to depend on space agencies and companies from other countries.

NASA will not be among Tiangong's partners. The agency will not be able to cooperate with the Chinese space station due to the so-called "Wolf Amendment" approved by the US Congress in 2011 and which prevents US agencies from cooperating with Chinese companies and agencies for national security reasons. This is a significant departure from the Cold War precedents, when NASA and its Soviet counterparts occasionally worked together despite political differences. To replace the ISS, NASA is investing in three possible commercial space station projects that would be launched as early as 2029. NASA and its partners also plan to assemble a lunar space station called Gateway over the course of this decade as part of the of the Artemis lunar program.

The disposal problem

The situation in Russia should not affect Tiangong's schedule. The head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, announced earlier this year that it will launch modules for its new station as early as 2028, although this is unlikely to happen. Tiangong's completion demonstrates that China is no longer an emerging player in space, but one of the few powers. And like other powers, China now faces the problem of disposing of the waste that accompanies space station operations. Most countries have reusable rockets or try to dispose of rocket scrap by reserving some fuel to allow for controlled descent into the atmosphere. This prevents them from stopping in low Earth orbit, where they could pose a danger to satellites and space stations, and from falling to Earth in an uncontrolled way.

However, the last two sections of the Long March rocket that the Chinese space agency used to transport the station's modules both crashed. While one fell into the Indian Ocean near the Maldives, the one that launched the Wentian lab module in July crumbled two weeks later, and some pieces fell in Malaysia and Indonesia. "China has shown that it lacks the ability to drop the top of its rockets in a controlled manner, which virtually all other advanced space stations do," said Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning at the Secure World Foundation. a think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado. According to Weeden, there is no international law requiring responsible behavior, even though China has joined the UN Convention on the subject, which means the country is to be held liable if its rocket causes damage or injury.

Geopolitical Consequences

Although China has significant military space capabilities, like the United States and Russia, the space station should not be considered as such, explains David Burbach, national security expert at Naval War College of Newport, Rhode Island. Like the ISS and the Mir, Tiangong has no military purpose and is primarily designed to facilitate scientific research: "The station has an articulated arm and, in theory, could grab a US satellite. But if you had such intentions, it would be much smarter to develop a small and stealthy satellite than to try to maneuver a huge space station, "Burbach points out.

According to Osburg, the completion of Tiangong has important geopolitical implications for the United States:" We cannot more to assume that we are the greats of space - he says -. This is an invitation for us, for the United States and for our allies, not to lose our leadership. There are different ways of managing a space station and exploration of space. I would like us to dictate the expansion of humanity into space, rather than an authoritarian regime like China ".

This article originally appeared. you on US.

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