China launches space station: no new ISS, but opportunity for science

Over the past decades, China has brought astronauts, moonlanders and a Mars probe into space. Tomorrow another chapter will open for Chinese space travel. From an island off the South China coast, the first module of a new space station is likely to be launched. Probably, because China has not announced a launch time.

The module that enters space – according to sources around the Chinese space program at 05.18 Dutch time – is immediately the most important part of the space station. Tianhe (‘heavenly harmony’) is the 22 ton core module that provides electricity and propulsion, providing shelter to three astronauts. Or yuhangyuans, as spacemen in Chinese are called.

The station must be finished by the end of next year. That goal was set many years ago, but was compromised by problems with the new Lange Mars 5 launcher, which have been resolved, but China now needs a steroid launch schedule to meet the target date, says Andrew Jones, China expert for Space.com and Spacenews.com.

In less than two years after tomorrow‘s launch, ten flights will have to take off with important cargo on board: two scientific modules, four freighters and four manned Shenzhou capsules. The first astronauts arrive in June.

The Chinese station is much smaller than the ISS. โ€œIt is actually better to compare with the former Russian space station Mir,โ€ says Jones. โ€œBut it has a lot of capacity for science, such as physics and biomedical research.โ€

The latter, research into the effects of space travel on the body, is especially important for the future. The station gives China experience with long space flights in low orbit, which is needed for the planned manned lunar flights in the 1930s. In addition, a space station gives prestige at home and abroad.

There are concerns in the US about military applications of the station, but according to Jones, there is little reason to do so. โ€œIt is true that they do not distinguish between military and civilian missions in China. But China has plenty of spy satellites. You can see a movement in the other direction; for the first time a group of civilian astronauts has been selected.โ€

In a few years, spacemen from other countries may also be welcome in the Tianhe, expects Jones. From a neighbouring country like Pakistan, for example. Through a special UN platform, scientists from other countries can also offer experiments. Out of 42 proposals, 9 have been selected. โ€œChina does not seek partnerships, but it does seek cooperation.โ€

Marc Klein Wolt of the Radboud University of Nijmegen also expects China to seek more rapprochement in this way, especially now that the ISS will retire in a few years. The international space station can still be used until 2028, but it is not yet certain. The Chinese station will remain active for at least 10 years in the meantime.

Klein Wolt himself is involved in a research instrument on a Chinese satellite at the back of the moon. For his research in the field of radio astronomy, the space station is not suitable. โ€œIn low orbit around the Earth, it’s hard to do radio astronomy. But for many other scientific fields, this is an interesting development. There are always researchers waiting for opportunities like this to arise.โ€

He suspects that cooperation is just as welcome to China. โ€œI think China is an excellent way to reach out to foreign scientists. That is space diplomacy par excellence, that they seek rapprochement through science.โ€