The International Space Station is no longer the only place humans can live in orbit.
On November 29, 2022, the Shenzhou 15 mission launched from the Gobi Desert in China carrying three taikonauts – the Chinese word for astronauts. Six hours later, they reached their destination, the recently completed Chinese space station, called Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace” in Mandarin. The three taikonauts replaced the existing crew who helped wrap up the build. With this successful mission, China became the third country to operate a permanent space station.
China’s space station is an achievement that solidifies the country’s position alongside the United States and Russia as one of the world’s top three space powers. As scholars of space law and space policy who lead the Space Governance Program at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop, we have followed the development of China’s space station with interest.
Unlike the US-led Collaborative International Space Station, Tiangong is built and operated entirely by China. The successful opening of the station is the beginning of an exciting science. But the station also highlights the country’s policy of self-reliance and is an important step for China towards achieving broader space ambitions in a changing landscape of power dynamics in space.
Capabilities of a Chinese station
The Tiangong Space Station is the culmination of three decades of work on China’s manned space program. The station is 180 feet (55 meters) long and is made up of three modules that were launched separately and connected in space. These include a central module where a maximum of six taikonauts can live and two experiment modules for a total of 3,884 cubic feet (110 cubic meters) of space, about one-fifth the size of the International Space Station. . The station also has an external robotic arm, which can support activities and experiments outside the station, and three docking ports for supply vehicles and manned spacecraft.
Like aircraft carriers and other Chinese spacecraft, Tiangong is based on a Soviet-era design – it’s roughly a copy of the Soviet Mir space station from the 1980s. But Tiangong railway station has been heavily modernized and improved.
China’s space station is expected to stay in orbit for 15 years, with plans to send two six-month crewed missions and two cargo missions there a year. Scientific experiments have already begun, with a planned study involving the breeding of monkeys beginning in the station’s biological test cabinets. Whether the monkeys cooperate is another matter altogether.
Science and a springboard
The main function of Tiangong Station is to research life in space. Particular emphasis is placed on learning about the growth and development of different types of plants, animals and microorganisms, and more than 1,000 experiments are planned for the next 10 years.
Tiangong is strictly made and managed by China, but China openly invites other countries to collaborate on experiments aboard Tiangong. So far, nine projects from 17 countries have been selected.
Although the new station is small compared to the International Space Station’s 16 modules, Tiangong and the science performed on board will help support China’s future space missions. In December 2023, China plans to launch a new space telescope called Xuntian. This telescope will map stars and supermassive black holes among other projects with roughly the same resolution as the Hubble Space Telescope but with a wider view. The telescope will periodically dock with the station for maintenance.
China also plans to launch several missions to Mars and nearby comets and asteroids in a bid to bring samples back to Earth. And perhaps most notably, China has announced its intention to build a joint moon base with Russia – although no timetable for this mission has been set.
A new era in space is unfolding. Tiangong Station begins life just as the International Space Station, after more than 30 years in orbit, is set to be decommissioned by 2030.
The International Space Station is the classic example of the ideals of collaboration in space – even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union came together to develop and launch the space station’s debut in early 1990s. In comparison, China and the United States have not been so jovial in their orbital relations.
In the 1990s, when China was still launching American satellites into orbit, concerns emerged that China was accidentally acquiring — or stealing — American technology. These concerns partly led to the Wolf Amendment, passed by Congress in 2011, which prohibits NASA from collaborating with China in any capacity. The Chinese space program was not mature enough to be part of the construction of the International Space Station in the 1990s and early 2000s. At the time when China had the capacity to contribute to the International Space Station, the Wolf amendment prevented that.
It remains to be seen how the map of space collaboration will evolve in the years to come. The US-led Artemis program, which aims to build a self-sustaining habitat on the Moon, is open to all nations, and 19 countries have joined as partners to date. China also recently opened up its joint moon mission with Russia to other countries. This is partly due to the cooling of Sino-Russian relations, but also because due to the war in Ukraine, Sweden, France and the European Space Agency have canceled planned missions with Russia.
As tensions on Earth rise between China, Russia and the West, and some of these jockeys spill out into space, it remains to be seen how the dismantling of the International Space Station and the exploitation of Tiangong station will influence Sino-US relations.
An event like the famous handshake between American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts orbiting Earth in 1975 is a long way off, but collaboration between the United States and China could do much to calm tensions on and above of the earth.
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