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Celestial second fiddle no more, China completes its space station

Tiangong is a big leap forward for China, but it also presents challenges

A Long March 5B rocket is launched Oct. 31 carrying the Mengtian science module, the final piece of China’s Tiangong space station. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, China’s space program played second fiddle to the United States’. But not anymore.

This week, China launched and docked the final module of its space station, Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” in low Earth orbit. It is a big leap forward for the country’s space program, which is trying to cement itself as a celestial superpower.

“It is a statement that China is now operating as a peer to the United States in space,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

With a complete space station, China doubles the number of astronauts it can have onboard to six. Scientists can conduct experiments to advance their future space goals, such as building a base on the moon or exploring Mars. Other lab tests could benefit pharmaceutical or engineering research on Earth, astrophysicists said.

China now controls the only working space station other than the larger International Space Station, which is run jointly by the United States, the European Space Agency, Russia and others. This creates diplomatic challenges, experts said.

Congress has effectively prohibited NASA from collaborating with China’s space program. But U.S. allies face no such constraints — and some have signaled that they will work with China.

“It’s going to complicate relationships,” said Amy J. Nelson, a space expert and foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. “This is a manifestation of the current U.S.-China competition in yet another domain.”

China launches 3rd and final space station component

For much of the past century, the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency were the major players in space exploration. But in recent years, China has invested heavily in its program, trying to catch up.

In 2003, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to use its own rocket to send a person into space. In 2013, it landed a mission without astronauts on the moon, the first “soft-landing” there since 1976. In 2019, China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, becoming the first country to do so.

Tensions soon emerged. In 2011, the U.S. Congress, citing national security concerns, passed a law that effectively prohibits NASA from collaborating with China on space research, locking Beijing out of any partnership on the International Space Station. That year, China launched its first prototype space station, called Tiangong-1, which orbited until 2018.

China’s current space station, Tiangong, consists of three modules.

Tianhe or “Harmony of the Heavens,” is the core module, which went into orbit in 2021, providing life support and accommodations for the crew. Wentian, or “Quest for the Heavens,” docked in July, and helps with navigation and propulsion. Mengtian, or “Dreaming of the Heavens,” is the final module, which was launched Oct. 31 and has cabins for advanced lab experiments.

In the future, the space station might gain a robotic telescope, said McDowell, the Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist.

China sends three astronauts to new space station

China’s space agency plans to conduct at least 1,000 scientific experiments aboard Tiangong, according to the science publication Nature. At least nine experiments will be conducted in collaboration with the United Nations and countries including Japan, Russia, India and Mexico, the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs said. Projects include seeing how DNA mutates in space and mapping stars.

McDowell said most research could fall into two areas. The first would be medical experiments, such as how humans would react to rapid free fall or radiation in space. The second would be analyses including how elements, such as fluids, operate in weightless environments.

This research could benefit drug discovery or solve engineering problems, because weightless environments allow scientists to mix and separate chemicals and alloys in ways they cannot under the influence of Earth’s gravity.

McDowell cautioned, however, that this is hard to accomplish. “There are grand ideas,” he said. “But it’s not actually clear that any of them pan out.”

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Nelson, of the Brookings Institution, said China’s ambitions for its space station mirror its broader diplomatic strategy to “flex its muscles” globally — a strategy that has resulted in tensions with the United States, notably over territorial claims in the South China Sea. “This is very consistent with Chinese behavior on Earth,” she said.

With Beijing in control of the only other working space station, the diplomatic calculus of space collaboration becomes more complicated, she said. U.S. allies are signing partnerships with China to collaborate on space exploration. “It’s a really interesting dynamic playing out,” she said. “Kind of like who has the most allies in the space.”

Jeffrey A. Hoffman, a retired NASA astronaut and professor of aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said China’s space station is necessary for a robust space program, because China needs to conduct research on crucial subjects, such as how long-duration space flight affects humans.

“They can read a lot about it in the journals,” he said, “but if they want to have their own program of space exploration with Chinese astronauts, which clearly they do, they don’t want things to just be secondhand.”

As China’s space station is hitting its stride, the aging International Space Station is reaching the end of its life, with service slated to end in 2030. Hoffman noted that NASA is leaning on the private sector — including companies such as Axiom Space, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin — to build a modern space station. (Blue Origin is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.)

Otherwise, the United States risks ceding an advantage to China, Hoffman said. He added: “We are not going to let that happen.”