China and the United States have always competed. Ever since the former became an economic superpower and understood that it could leverage its skills and expertise to its advantage, the race has pretty much been on.
Now, the country appears focused on its own space program - a move which could see it gain autonomy from U.S. control and provide even more competition for NASA.
Last month, reports confirmed that China had launched the first module of its fully functional space station. The milestone marks the first step in Beijing’s plans to establish and run a fully human presence in space, and it is coming at a time when several other countries are also looking to achieve space dominance.
Launched from China’s Hainan province on April 21, the Tianhe (also known as the “Heavenly Harmony”) was an unnamed core module that contained living quarters that could accommodate up to three crew members. The space station is expected to become fully functional in 2022, with the Chinese government planning ten missions that will take parts and equipment to it and have them assembled in orbit.
China’s Ambitious Space Program Takes Root
China’s space ambitions have been a long time coming. In 2016, the country launched its agenda for a space station by sending a Long March 7 rocket into space. The rocket was built to help the country with building a multi-module space station, and it was also the first to lift off from the country’s Wenchang launch complex. The launch also marked the first time that tourists in the country were encouraged to watch and be a part of the experience.
The country also launched a “hack-proof” quantum communication satellite - known as Quantum Experiments at Space Scale - from its Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi Desert. The satellite was designed to investigate “entanglement,” a quantum phenomenon that has bothered some of the world’s brightest minds for decades.
Since then, China has spent billions of dollars on its space ambitions. The country has been able to capitalize on its strong technological might to assert its place as a world power, and it is now looking to build its dominance across the stars as well. As of 2018, it was estimated that the Chinese government was spending about $5 billion annually on its space endeavors. The number pales in comparison with the $41 billion that the United States spent, but it still was enough to put the country in second place - ahead of Russia, Japan, and France, respectively.
The country has also carried out two experimental modules in preparation for its permanent space station. The Tiangong-1, which means “Heavenly Place 1,” burned up after it got lost in orbit in 2016. The module eventually got damaged and was abandoned altogether, although it fell back to Earth in 2018.
Its successor, Tiangong-2, was taken out of orbit in 2018 after a successful run.
Leaving the United States’ Control
Tianhe is one of the three major components of what would be the Chinese self-sustaining space station. The station is set to rival the only other one in existence - none other than the International Space Station (ISS).
Currently, the ISS is maintained and run by a joint effort from the United States, Russia, Canada, and Japan. The United States barred China from participating, and the latter has now decided to simply bring its own force into existence instead. If not for anything, the audacious nature of this project is quite impressive.
Now that the first mission has been successful, China will focus on launching the other two core modules, as well as four cargo spacecraft and four manned vehicles. With work on the space station already about a decade old, China already tested the space program’s docking and rendezvous capacities.
The country is looking to become the global space superpower in the next decade, and it already ramped up its space itinerary with visits to the moon and the launch of a probe that landed on Mars.
Work is in Progress
The Tianhe mission is coming just a few weeks before the designated landing for a Chinese probe on Mars. The probe - called the Tianwen-1 - has been orbiting the planes since February, collecting valuable data and transmitting it to the country’s space authorities. Its rover, named Zhurong, will be docking to look for evidence of life on the red planet.
The docking of Tianwen-1 will make China only the second country to have a probe on Mars - after the United States.
China has another program that sims to get soil from an asteroid, and the country is planning another mission in 2024 to bring lunar samples back to the Earth. At the time, the government will be working on its plan to land people on the moon - and perhaps develop a base on the celestial body. There is no timeline for these developments, but the Chinese government seems highly motivated nonetheless.