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China's Bold Leap into the Unknown

Jun 17, 2022

China’s space program may lag behind the U.S. in accomplishments to date, but it is not to be underestimated. As the program continues to grow, the U.S.-led International Space Station, though bigger and older, is getting creaky and harder to maintain. 

As if the natural degradation in the life cycle of the space station is not a serious enough challenge, there has also been the added complication of political fallout between the U.S. and Russia. From the conception of the ISS idea, the entire project relied on close cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. For a decade, the U.S. relied on Russia to ferry its astronauts back and forth from space. The U.S. module depends on the Russian wing to make necessary course corrections, and historically, the Russian module would quickly run out of breathable air without oxygen generation from the U.S. side. 

China was famously excluded from docking at the so-called “International” Space Station in 2011 due to narrow-minded political concerns in the U.S. Congress codified as the Wolf Amendment, but it has done a remarkable job of dealing with the political necessity of going at it alone. 

Chinese scientists conducted yet another successful manned space launch on June 5, using a powerful Long March rocket to carry the Shenzhou 14 capsule from the Jiuquan Launch Center in the Gobi Desert into near-earth space. 

Crew members Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe are now safely inside China’s nascent space station, a 54-foot long cylindrical capsule known as the Tianhe. 

The Tiangong space platform, still only partially realized, will be enlarged during the current mission. The latest crew to rocket up to China’s space station (the third of three missions in the past year) will be responsible for overseeing two important additions to the core Tianhe cylinder, which currently houses the crew. 

By year’s end, the long, cylindrical space station will be built out to assume a T-shape with two new modules, one of which is an additional crew chamber. When finished, the enlarged habitable platform will be about one-fifth the size of the International Space Station. 

The crew, all in their mid-forties, include two veterans of early flights. Chen Dong was on the Shenzhou 11 mission in 2016 and Liu Yang, China’s first woman in space, made her inaugural journey on Shenzhou 9 in 2012. 

They are the third crew to reside in the Tianhe, which was launched last spring. Their key task is to rendezvous and dock with the two modules, which will be shifted to lateral docking ports and then sealed into place with the help of ground control and a robotic arm. The Wentian module may arrive as early as July, and the Mengtian module is expected to arrive in October. 

Several spacewalks and various scientific activities are included in the mission manifest. 

In December, the Shenzhou 15, similarly staffed with a crew of three, is expected to lift off for its journey to the space station. If the timing goes right, the Tiangong platform will be home to six astronauts as the departing crew will remain on board to welcome the new arrivals. The Shenzhou 15, and the powerful Long March 2F rocket designed to lift it into orbit are already on standby, in case of emergency on the current mission. 

Perhaps even more amazing than China’s ability to successfully emulate if not match U.S. accomplishments in space station technology is their willingness to simultaneously take on extremely complex and ambitious projects aiming at the Moon and Mars. China’s persistence and perseverance in catching up and matching U.S. accomplishments extends beyond manned space flight, which understandably gets the most media attention, to various remote missions and telescope projects.  

China now possesses the world’s single greatest “eye” on space in the form of FAST, the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope built in a natural sinkhole basin in the karst hills of Guizhou in south China. 

Arecibo, the historically groundbreaking U.S. radio telescope built in Puerto Rico, collapsed in December 2020, but the scope and size of China’s filled aperture radio telescope, nicknamed “tianyan” or “heavenly eye” had already eclipsed the old standard bearer by many margins. It is the largest such radio telescope in the world, and is already bringing in hard-to-obtain data about pulsars and interstellar molecules. 

China is also in the final stages of dispatching a space telescope to earth orbit, matching the size and acuity of the legendarily productive Hubble Space Telescope launched by NASA 32 years ago. The new optical telescope will come on line at a time when advances in technology make it possible for it to take in a much wider field of vision, about 300 times as much sky, ultimately able to survey about 40% of the heavens with its 2.5 billion pixel camera. It will collect information in visible light and ultraviolet light and will carry additional instruments suitable for the star mapping, the study of black holes, the detection of distant exoplanets and fast-moving near-earth objects such as wayward comets and asteroids. 

What’s more, the new multi-purpose space-based telescope is designed to rendezvous and even dock with China’s burgeoning Tiangong Space Station. 

China’s having another stellar year in space which is good news for the march of science everywhere, and a not-so-subtle reminder to reigning space champ USA that it can’t take being  number one for granted, but must invest and strive in order to keep up. 

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