The world could benefit from China’s space ambitions

AAt 3:37 a.m. ET on Monday, China launched the latest key component of its space station, the latest step in the country’s drive to become a leading space power.

The Mengtian (“dreaming of the sky”) laboratory module, aboard a carrier rocket, took off from the Wenchang spacecraft launch site on Hainan Island. It should dock with the Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space station in a few hours.

Read more: From satellites to the Moon and Mars, China is fast becoming a space superpower

Designed to perform experiments in microgravity and low Earth orbit, Mengtian will be China’s second addition to Tiangong this year, following July’s deployment of Wentian (“sky quest”), a laboratory module equipped for biological research. .

The completion of Tiangong’s key structures is, in itself, a feat, given that its first core module was only sent to low Earth orbit in April last year. Tiangong makes China the third country in the world, after the United States and Russia, to send astronauts and build a space station.

China still has many other extraterrestrial ambitions in the works. Over the next decade, he plans to build a base at the southern tip of the moon and from there deploy a telescope with 300 times Hubble’s field of view. He also intends to collect samples from Mars, among other goals. Some of these developments are expected to take place sooner than similar deadlines set by NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA).

It is this steady advancement of China’s space program that worries US politicians and senior military officials. Some believe the United States is falling behind in the new “race to space” – echoing rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War – with the moon as the finish line once again. The United States, in a hurry to build its own lunar base, is already trying to test rockets for round-trip lunar flights.

Read more: China will eventually overtake the US in outer space, new study warns

Tiangong will not compete with the 16-module International Space Station (ISS), China said, having at most six modules based on earlier plans. But with the ISS retired after 2030, unless US private companies like SpaceX and Tesla replace it with their own stations, Tiangong will be the only space station orbiting Earth. The Tiangong may even have forced the decision of the United States last year to delay the dismantling of the ISS, which was originally scheduled for 2024, says Quentin Parker of the Space Research Laboratory at the University of Hong Kong.

“The competition is good,” Parker told TIME. “It helps you train, improve your performance, reduce costs and get new developments faster.”

Sino-American competition in space

As competition intensifies, China and the United States accuse each other of weaponizing outer space. China’s space program’s opaque ties to the People’s Liberation Army fuel Washington’s concerns over the use of civilian facilities for surveillance and intelligence, even though NASA is used to working with defense agencies Americans. Citing security concerns, the United States in 2011 passed a law banning China from joining the ISS and requiring FBI approval for any exchange of space information with the country. More recently, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accused China of planning to colonize the Moon, steal technology and use the Tiangong to study how to destroy other satellites, a claim China has vehemently denied.

Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut who was on the ISS from 2004 to 2005, laments the United States’ refusal to collaborate with China in space, while Russia, its space rival since the Cold War and a continuing threat to Washington’s security, can still commute. astronauts to the ISS.

“You can’t tell me the Russians aren’t trying to spy on the United States and vice versa,” he told TIME. “But we had a very successful collaboration on the International Space Station because nothing we do with the ISS has military value.” Russia, however, plans to leave the ISS consortium by 2024.

In its January white paper, China emphasized “peaceful collaboration” with international partners in space science and governance. Still, some worry that working with China will encourage its military. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies claims that Beijing may use data collected from ground stations in South America – a key part of China’s space infrastructure – for surveillance. On the other hand, ESA and China have been exchanging data collected from European and Chinese satellites since 2004 to advance earth science research. Karl Bergquist, ESA’s administrator for the department of international relations, says the agency does not see why “with China because the data exchanged is not for military use but for scientific use.

“The more data our scientists have to work with, the better it will be for all of us,” Bergquist told TIME.

Read more: China’s new space station has a big role to play, scientifically and diplomatically

For its part, China does not want to close the doors of its space station: Tiangong is open to all UN member states. The ESA has even planned for its astronauts to board the Tiangong, although this has been stalled pending further talks with Beijing. One of the station’s designers told state media that Tiangong is “inclusive” and designed to be adaptable to non-Chinese astronauts. And at least 1,000 scientific experiments will be conducted in the station, Nature reports, mostly involving Chinese researchers, but also including projects led by researchers from 17 other countries and regions like Kenya, Russia, Mexico, Japan and Peru, some of whom are struggling to support their own space initiatives .

While the United States has decades of operational experience ahead of China’s space program, China’s willingness to partner with other countries today could cement its place as a space power. Since 2016, China has concluded 46 space cooperation agreements with 19 different countries and regions.

“I do not believe [China] wants to be confrontational,” Parker told TIME. “I think they want people to like them; I think they want to be trusted.

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