A Chinese Space Station has Debuted, Beginning a New Race for the Moon
The Chinese space station “Heavenly Palace,” made its debut at an aerospace exhibit in China, highlighting the new future of space travel.
In a move that may signal the next stage of the space age and the first step in the international competition for the moon, China recently unveiled a replica of its new space station, known as the Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace.” The debut came during China’s biennial Airshow, the largest aerospace exhibit in the country.
Tiangong is still in the construction phase, but following a two-year delay it is now on track to meet its 2022 launch date. The station will feature a 55-foot core module, along with additional sections that may be added later. A permanent crew of three astronauts will be rotated in an out after a predetermined period lasting several months, and the station is expected to have a lifespan of around 10 years. After that, it will either need significant remodeling or be replaced. China is currently accepting proposals from countries around the world to either conduct specific experiments on their behalf or take astronauts to Tiangong for a lengthy stay.
Within the next few years, the space exploration scene is going to look completely different than it does now. The International Space Station has already lasted longer than it was initially expected and additional modules will be attached in the next year. Plans are also underway for multiple organizations (including NASA) to begin crewed tests of new spacecraft in the next year or so. But as the options grow, they also seem to be decentralizing.
New Stations are Coming
Along with the new Chinese space station, the Russians are considering their own station, the Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex (OSPEK). Originally, Russia planned on building a new station as a joint effort with the U.S., but cooling relations and rising costs changed things. Russia’s Roscosmos then suggested removing its ISS modules as the base for the new OSPEK, but that proved to be technically impractical, if not outright impossible.
What that means is that within the next 5-10 years, we could see three space stations in orbit, with two of them – OSPEK and Tiangong – remaining the exclusively operated by the Russian and Chinese governments, respectively (even if the astronauts on board are international). Meanwhile, ISS may continue to grow, and the list of partner countries may grow right along with it. But all the while, every space agency will have its eyes on the bigger prizes – the moon and Mars.
Onward and Upward
Tiangong will likely be a bit further behind the others when it reaches orbit, but the Chinese are catching up fast. Its space program doesn’t have anywhere near the experience that NASA, Roscosmos, and even the European Space Agency does, but the Chinese have been sending crewed missions into space since 2003. Due to concerns over espionage, China has been effectively shut out of the international space community, including partnering on the ISS. U.S. legislation made that general rule into law in 2011, legally prohibiting Chinese involvement with NASA. It is catching up fast though, and what it lacks in practice, it makes up for in funding – something the other agencies are constantly scrambling for.
The stated goal of Tiangong is scientific research, but China is concurrently working on plans for the moon. The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program was announced years ago, with the first two of four phases completed in 2007 and 2013, respectively, culminating with Chinese rovers on the moon. The next phase is set for 2019 and will see an automated lunar landing followed by a return to Earth. The fourth and final phase, scheduled for 2024, will see crews land on the moon and begin work on a permanent base.
The Chinese timeline to begin a permanent presence on the moon is right in step with NASA’s. Schedules are known to be missed though, especially when it comes to space exploration, so the next few years will be vital. The ISS is currently scheduled to be retired in 2024 (although that date could be extended), which would give the Chinese a huge advantage for reaching the moon if those dates hold. Tiangong may act as a fueling depot and a warehouse for lunar materials, and without a similar setup for NASA, ESA, and its partners (and commercial agencies working with them), they will theoretically be at a huge disadvantage.
Even if plans for the moon are delayed, with a space station on the way and the ISS on the way out, it could propel China into the role of space leader. Meanwhile, despite its public protests, the Chinese military is also investing heavily in space technologies. Publically, the Chinese military and its space agency will remain separate, but the two will share technology. Although the concept of an American “Space Force” is relatively new, the U.S. Military has been working toward the same goal for years. It adds a layer of terror to space exploration, but the technologicl advancements from having militaristic goals should help the commercial and scientific sides as well.
One thing is for sure: After years of space exploration remaining somewhat static – at least in terms of crewed experiences – the next few years are going to be very interesting.