China's new space station opens for business as space race heats up | Tech News

China's new space station opens for business as space race heats up

China’s new space station opens for business in an increasingly competitive era of space activity

By:PTI
| Updated on: Dec 12 2022, 17:35 IST
NASA Voyager 1 completes 45 years in space! And still solving mysteries
Tiangong space station
1/6 Voyager 1, the second of a twin spacecraft, was lifted off on September 5, 1977. For the journey, the Voyagers planned to use Jupiter’s gravity to ship them on to explore Saturn and its large moon Titan. (NASA)
Tiangong space station
2/6 On August 20, 1977, Voyager 2 was launched into space. NASA informed that each Voyager carried a suite of 11 instruments to study the planets during each encounter and to learn more about interplanetary space in the outer reaches of the solar system. (NASA)
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3/6 Two weeks after the launch of Voyager 1, it turned its camera back toward its home planet and took the first single-frame image of the Earth-Moon system. Also, the spacecraft successfully traversed the asteroid belt between December 10, 1977, and September 8, 1978. The asteroid belt is the area where most of the asteroid lies. (NASA)
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4/6 Voyager 1 conducted its observations of Jupiter between January 6 and April 13, 1979, making its closest approach of 216837 miles from the planet’s center on March 5. During this observation, the spacecraft shared 19000 images of the giant which even confirmed the presence of a thin ring encircling it. (NASA)
Tiangong space station
5/6 Not just Jupiter, Voyager 1 began its observations of Saturn in 1980 and concluded its studies on December 14. During the encounter, the spacecraft shared 16000 images, including Saturn, its rings, and many other satellites. (NASA)
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6/6 Moreover, Voyager 1 became the most distant human-made object. It also shared a mosaic of 60 images, which captured six planets of the solar system, including a pale blue dot called Earth from a distance of more than 3.7 billion miles. (NASA)
Tiangong space station
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The Tiangong space station is the culmination of three decades of work on the Chinese manned space program. (AP)

The International Space Station is no longer the only place where humans can live in orbit.

On Nov. 29, 2022, the Shenzhou 15 mission launched from China's Gobi Desert carrying three taikonauts – the Chinese word for astronauts. Six hours later, they reached their destination, China's recently completed space station, called Tiangong, which means “heavenly palace” in Mandarin. The three taikonauts replaced the existing crew that helped wrap up construction. With this successful mission, China has become just the third nation to operate a permanent space station.

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China's space station is an achievement that solidifies the country's position alongside the U.S. and Russia as one of the world's top three space powers. As scholars of space law and space policy who lead the Indiana University Ostrom Workshop's Space Governance Program, we have been following the development of the Chinese space station with interest.

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Unlike the collaborative, U.S.-led International Space Station, Tiangong is entirely built and run by China. The successful opening of the station is the beginning of some exciting science. But the station also highlights the country's policy of self-reliance and is an important step for China toward achieving larger space ambitions among 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 comprised of three modules that were launched separately and connected in space. These include one core 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 resupply vehicles and manned spacecraft.

Like China's aircraft carriers and other spacecraft, Tiangong is based on a Soviet-era design – it is pretty much a copy of the Soviet Mir space station from the 1980s. But the Tiangong station has been heavily modernized and improved.

The Chinese space station is slated to stay in orbit for 15 years, with plans to send two six-month crewed missions and two cargo missions to it annually. The science experiments have already begun, with a planned study involving monkey reproduction commencing in the station's biological test cabinets. Whether the monkeys will cooperate is an entirely different matter.

Science and a steppingstone

The main function of the Tiangong station is to perform research on life in space. There is a particular focus 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 Chinese made and managed, but China has an open invitation for other nations 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 16 modules of the International Space Station, Tiangong and the science done aboard will help support China's future space missions. In December 2023, China is planning to launch a new space telescope called Xuntian. This telescope will map stars and supermassive black holes among other projects with a resolution about the same as the Hubble Space Telescope but with a wider view. The telescope will periodically dock with the station for maintenance.

China also has plans to launch multiple missions to Mars and nearby comets and asteroids with the goal of bringing samples back to Earth. And perhaps most notably, China has announced plans to build a joint Moon base with Russia – though no timeline for this mission has been set.

Astropolitics

A new era in space is unfolding. The Tiangong station is beginning its 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 collaborative ideals in space – even at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union came together to develop and launch the beginnings of the space station in the early 1990s. By comparison, China and the U.S. have not been so jovial in their orbital dealings.

In the 1990s, when China was still launching U.S. satellites into orbit, concerns emerged that China was accidentally acquiring – or stealing – U.S. technology. These concern in part led to the Wolf Amendment, passed by Congress in 2011, which prohibits NASA from collaborating with China in any capacity.

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First Published Date: 12 Dec, 17:35 IST
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