With the launch of the core module of its first space station, China has cemented its place in the world as an undisputed space power.
The landmark development marks an important milestone in humanity’s quest for exploration, with two space stations about to rotate the earth simultaneously.
The communist nation successfully launched the first module of its own space station – the Tianhe core module cabin – into a low-earth orbit aboard the Long March-5B Y2 rocket from Wenchang spaceport in South China’s Hainan Province on 27th April 2021.
The country is set to begin an ambitious two-year construction project 370 km above Earth for their modular space station.
The Tianhe module weighs around 22 tonnes and will function as the main management and control center for China’s future space station while hosting three astronauts for long-term in-orbit missions, the country’s state-run Global Times said, quoting the space station program contractor, the state-owned aerospace giant China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).
Quoting CASC, it said the module, “the largest, heaviest and most complicated spacecraft that China has developed to date, will provide astronauts a living and working space of approximately 50 cubic meters. This space will increase to some 110 cubic meters once the other two experiment modules are in place.”
The country has joined the elite space power club comprised of a select few countries with the launch of its own space station. Only two other countries have the capability to send human flights into space, which are the US and Russia.
The Chinese space station will consist of three modules, with Tianhe being the first section, to be followed by the launch of the other two modules in the near future. The station is expected to be operational by around 2022, which will be exactly three decades after the nation approved Project 921 to develop human spaceflight in 1992, according to Global Times.
As earlier announced by China National Space Administration, the space station will be used to conduct experiments, some of which include materials science research, work with ultracold atoms to research quantum mechanics, and experiments on medicine in microgravity.
Several global partners will also be conducting experiments onboard the Chinese space station, including the Italian Space Agency and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
The country has announced that it is open to any nation intending to partner with China in scientific collaboration and research aboard the station.
“Another purpose for building the space station is to accumulate experiences for future deep-space missions, including those to the Moon. The renewable life support system to be tested in space will further explore the possibility of growing grain and vegetables, eventually realizing a self-sufficient cycle on the Moon,” Global Times quoted Bo Linhou, vice chief designer of Tianhe core module as saying.
Military Use Of Chinese Space Station
However, many in the West have raised concerns about the clandestine ambitions behind China building its own station.
One recently released intelligence report by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence on global threats saying, “The PLA will continue to integrate space services—such as satellite reconnaissance and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT)—and satellite communications into its weapons and command-and-control systems to erode the US military’s information advantage.”
The report also mentions the space station being built by the country, warning that “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits” of matching the US’s capabilities in space.
Rick Fisher, International Assessment and Strategy Center, who is a Senior Fellow on Asian Military Affairs, claimed in New John Batchelor Show podcast that China had been planning for the construction of this space station for about 20 years.
“China wants this space station for both the range of civil commercial reasons and for military missions. It will be conducting science experiments, production experiments, material production experiments; but the shape of the space station based on the Russian MIR, based on stolen technology, according to my Russian critics.
It is formed of modules that can be put together, taken apart, and replaced. One module, dedicated to experiments, can be replaced with another module, full of laser weapons or warheads to bomb the earth.”
The picture shows China's space station core module Tianhe and the long March 5B rocket (Skywalker) pic.twitter.com/nHZePQZhaM
— Angelina (@SpaceGirlLina) April 29, 2021
“I expect that as China’s space program is controlled by the People’s Liberation Army, which has sought as much dual-use benefit from both the manned and unmanned space programs of the space station, as well as future moon bases, will all feature dual-use elements, meaning military elements,” Fisher added.
Upon being asked whether this was really a military operation, he answered in the affirmative.
China has tremendously increased its overall government funding for space activities in 2020, and the country is outnumbered only by the United States. Although the country spent $8.9 billion in space activities, it was still very low compared to the US’ $48 billion, but the experts agree China has continuously ramped up its space research and exploration program, which may soon take over the US.
China’s space agencies were barred from working with NASA after the US passed the “Wolf Amendment,” restricting any exchange of information between the American space agency and the China National Space Agency or other Chinese space organizations.
The ISS (International Space Agency) currently the only operational space station orbiting the earth is a consortium of multiple nations, including the US, Russia, Japan, Europe, etc. The operating cost of the ISS ranges between $2 and $4 billion and is supported by multiple partner countries, with the NASA being the lead contributor.
The Chinese space station, although just a quarter size of the ISS, is solely funded by China and the launch represents a stepping stone for the country for many ground-breaking milestones in space exploration, the experts say.
Although the collaboration with the Russian space agency helped it with much of the human flight capability, China has truly arrived on the world stage with a resounding achievement of its own.