May 31, 2023
BEIJING – China is set to ramp up its operations in space, as its space station has been fully completed since late 2022. The latest manned mission to the Tiangong in May will mark the second handover of Chinese astronauts in orbit. Here is a closer look at how the Tiangong was developed and how China’s space ambitions compare with other efforts led by the United States.
1. A newcomer to space
The Tiangong – or heavenly palace – was assembled in stages, starting with a core module launched in April 2021. Its completion was marked by the docking of a third and final module in November 2022, forming a T-shape structure some 340km to 450km above the earth’s surface.
Long-term operations are under way at the space station, which is permanently crewed with three “taikonauts” (as Chinese astronauts are called) who perform scientific experiments, conduct maintenance and test equipment.
The Tiangong is entirely built and run by China. This is unlike the International Space Station (ISS), which is a collaboration between the space agencies of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe. The ISS is ageing and set to be decommissioned by 2031.
The Shenzhou spacecraft takes taikonauts to the Tiangong. The current Shenzhou-15 mission, which launched in November 2022, is manned by three taikonauts who have been living in orbit in Tiangong and have conducted spacewalks to install equipment needed for future missions. They are set to hand over to another three taikonauts from the Shenzhou-16.
Like the ISS, the Tiangong’s main purpose is to perform scientific research, with more than 1,000 experiments planned in the next decade.
These include nine international projects from 17 countries that will begin this year, ranging from aerospace medicine to life sciences and biotechnology.
The Tiangong will support a high-powered space telescope called the Xuntian, which is set to be launched sometime in 2023. This is China’s answer to the Hubble Space Telescope, a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency.
The Xuntian – or “survey of heavens” – will be able to observe the vast number of galaxies and transmit data back to earth to help scientists unravel the mysteries behind how these evolved.
3. Indigenous development
China developed its own space station partly out of necessity. Since 2011, Chinese astronauts have been barred under US law from entering the ISS over technology transfer concerns and their implications for national security.
In 2003, China sent its first astronaut to space – more than 10 years after the country developed a blueprint mapping out its space ambitions – joining the US and the former Soviet Union as the only countries to have independently achieved this feat.
Since then, China has become among the most active spacefaring nations, and its accomplishments have been a source of national pride. Having a sustained presence in space with the Tiangong is expected to help prepare sending taikonauts to the moon and building a permanent International Lunar Research Station with Russia in the second half of this decade.
This is in competition with the US-led Artemis space exploration programme, which has the ultimate goal of building a lunar base to send the first astronauts to Mars.
4. Geopolitical rivalry
Space has often been seen as yet another arena for countries vying for international prestige. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union famously competed to put the first man on the moon in the 1960s.
China aims to be a “space power in all respects” – from conducting cutting-edge scientific research and even to providing “strong support for the realisation of the Chinese Dream” – according to a government White Paper in 2016.
Beijing also regards its space programme as a way of safeguarding its national security. US reports have said China’s growing capabilities in space could offer potential military advantages, such as in the gathering of intelligence.
But the US still greatly outspends China in terms of overall government funding for space activities. In 2020, Beijing allocated US$8.9 billion (S$12 billion) to space funding, compared with the Americans’ US$48 billion.
With Russia – whose astronauts form the majority of the ISS’ inhabitants along with the US – set to pull out of the ISS amid growing acrimony with the West over the Ukraine war, an era of space cooperation could be coming to an end.