The International Space Station is no longer the only place humans can live in orbit.
On November 29, 2022, the Launch of the Shenzhou 15 mission of 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 run Indiana University’s Ostrom’s workshop Spatial Governance Programwe follow with interest the development of the Chinese space station.
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 the Chinese manned space program. The station is 180 feet (55 meters) long and is composed of three modules which 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 a external robotic armthat can support activities and off-station experiencesand 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 pretty much a copy of the Soviet Mir space station from the 1980s. But Tiangong 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 per year. Scientific experiments have already begun, with a planned study involving monkey breeding start in the station’s bioassay cabinets. Whether the monkeys cooperate is another matter altogether.
Science and a springboard
The main function of Tiangong Station is to perform space life research. Particular emphasis is placed on learning about the growth and development of different types of plants, animals and microorganisms, and there are more than 1,000 experiments 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 were selected.
Although the new station is small compared to the 16 modules of the International Space StationTiangong 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 moor at the station for servicing.
China also has plans to launch several missions to Mars and nearby comets and asteroids in an effort to bring samples back to Earth. And perhaps most notably, China has announced its intention to build a common moon base with Russia – although no timetable for this mission has been set.
A new era in space is unfolding. The Tiangong station begins its life just as the International Space Station, after more than 30 years in orbit, is about to be downgraded 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 arose that China accidentally acquiring – or stealing – American technology. These concerns have 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 it.
It remains to be seen how the map of space collaboration will evolve in the years to come. United States led Artemis program which aims to build a self-contained habitat on the Moon is open to all nations, and 19 countries have joined as partners so far. China also recently opened up its joint moon mission with Russia to other countries. This was partly motivated by cooling of Sino-Russian relations but also the fact that due to the war in Ukraine, Sweden, France and the European Space Agency have canceled the missions planned with Russia.
As tensions on Earth rise between China, Russia and the West, and some of these jockeys overflows into spaceit remains to be seen how the dismantling of the International Space Station and the operation of the 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.