Step by step, China finds its footing in outer space

Step by step, China finds its footing in outer space

After 11 years, China has finally completed its Tiangong space station with the docking of its Mengtian lab module, establishing the Tiangong as the second operational space station apart from the US-led, multinational International Space Station (ISS).

On November 1, China’s mouthpiece Global Times trumpeted that the Mengtian lab module, the third and final part of its Tiangong space station, docked with the core Tianhe module 13 hours after being launched. Next, the Tianhe and Mengtian modules will dock with the Wentian lab module, completing Tiangong’s T-shaped basic structure. 

Chinese state outlet Xinhua describes the 17.88-meter-long, 23-ton Mengtian module as the heaviest operational single-cabin active spacecraft in orbit. Mengtian consists of a work cabin, a cargo airlock cabin, a payload cabin and a resource cabin, Xinhua said. In addition, it has eight scientific experiment cabinets and 37 extravehicular installation options, enabling more in-cabin and out-cabin experiments in a microgravity environment.

Mengtian also carries the world’s first space atomic clock system, consisting of a hydrogen clock, a rubidium clock and an optical clock. Xinhua notes that it is the world’s most accurate time and frequency system, built to support fundamental physics research such as measuring gravitational redshift and verifying the constant speed of light.

It also carries specialized payloads, such as a rack capable of producing ultra-cold quantum gas close to absolute zero, a cabinet that, for the first time, allows filming material changes in high temperatures with X-rays and a cutting-edge space-based fluids physics lab.

These payloads, Xinhua notes, create experimental conditions not achievable on Earth, serving as incubators for futuristic technologies such as new alloys, crystals and semiconductors. Mengtian also has a dexterous robotic arm and augmented reality glass to assist the crew with maintenance.

The Tiangong program has been partly driven by a US ban on cooperating with China in space projects, forcing Beijing to become self-reliant in space. The 2011 Wolf Amendment prohibits NASA from any form of bilateral space cooperation with China without special approval from the US Congress, effectively banning China from the ISS.

However, Tiangong may have been instrumental for the Biden administration to extend the ISS lifespan until 2030, up from its planned initial decommissioning date in 2024. NASA notes should the ISS be decommissioned and replaced by privately-operated space stations, the Tiangong will remain the only operational state-operated space station.

In contrast to the US’ exclusionary approach, China has adopted an open-door policy.

China’s 2021 White Paper on its space program states that one of its objectives is to “to facilitate global consensus on our shared responsibility in utilizing outer space for peaceful purposes and safeguarding its security for the benefit of all humanity.”

The paper also emphasizes that China “always combines independence and self-reliance with opening to the outside world,” and “has actively promoted global governance of outer space, and carried out international cooperation in space science, technology and application through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms.”

One of the more ambitious aims of China’s space program is to position the country as a leading provider of space-based international public goods and services, such as planetary defense. Last month, Asia Times reported about China’s plans to conduct its first asteroid deflection test in 2025 or 2026, which copies NASA’s successful DART program in September NASA used a spacecraft to deflect an asteroid off-course, in the first successful mission of its type.

China has also taken pioneering steps in Mars exploration. In July, Asia Times reported on the completion of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission, which has provided medium and high-resolution photos of the planet’s surface. China has also stated that it is willing to share scientific data from its Tianwen-1 mission at an appropriate time and that scientists are welcome to apply for research over the data.

Moreover, China has also announced plans to send men to the moon, paving the potential way for its future settlement and economic use. This September, Asia Times reported on China’s plans to send its taikonauts to the moon by 2030 using an indigenously-upgraded Long 05 March rocket.

In  January, Asia Times reported on China and Russia’s joint plans to establish a permanent moon base by 2027. The proposed permanent moon base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), is envisioned as an experimental complex designed for multiple scientific activities, such as moon exploration, moon-based observation, research experiments and observation.

However, China’s space program also has military purposes, reflecting the dual-use nature of space technologies.

This August, Asia Times reported that China’s homegrown Beidou satellite navigation system started to allow mobile phone users to send and receive short messages through the system, expanding its use in diverse civilian applications. However, Beidou could also be used for military tactical communications and to guide long-range strikes.

In 2018, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tested a Beidou smartwatch which tracks soldiers’ health and location and allows them to call for help and report live situations. In addition, Beidou could also be used to guide China’s Thunder Stone (LS-6) glide bomb, which is analogous to the US JDAM precision-guided munition, and the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

In addition to tactical military communications and weapons guidance, China may use its commercial satellites as ad-hoc military spy satellites. This April, Asia Times reported on China’s artificial intelligence (AI) upgrade to its Jilin-1 commercial imaging satellite, which enabled it to achieve a 95% success rate in identifying small objects such as cars and planes on the street, marking a sevenfold increase from previous technology.

China’s Tiangong space station, along with its other space projects, aims to fulfill larger strategic goals. A 2021 study by the French Institute of International Relations notes that China’s space doctrine is based on three pillars: national development, military empowerment and great power competition, with the first two pillars providing the initial impetus and the last pillar intensifying over the past few decades against a backdrop of Sino-US rivalry.

China may also seek to use the Tiangong to persuade other nations to its side to legitimize its standing as an established space power.  

This April, Global Times declared that the Tiangong is open to all UN member states, with nine projects involving 17 countries including Kenya, Russia, Mexico, Japan, and Peru, alongside 23 entities selected among the first batch of scientific experiments to be carried onboard the station. 

Chan De Guzman notes in an October article for Time Magazine that since 2004 the European Space Agency (ESA) and China have exchanged satellite data to advance Earth science research. Reflecting China’s open-door space policy, De Guzman also notes that the Tiangong is designed to be “inclusive” and adaptable for foreign astronauts.