China’s Steady Space Progress Takes Another Leap

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China’s Steady Space Progress Takes Another Leap

With the Shenzhou-12 launch and arrival of astronauts to the Tianhe core module, Beijing’s space ambitions are on target.

China’s Steady Space Progress Takes Another Leap

A Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying a crew of Chinese astronauts in a Shenzhou-12 spaceship lifts off at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwestern China, Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

This week, China launched the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft with three astronauts on a Long March-2F Y12 carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. It was the first batch of astronauts to arrive at the 22-ton Tianhe (“Harmony in Heaven”) core module that was launched into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in April, now awaiting in-orbit assembly and construction to complete China’s Tiangong space station by 2022. 

The Tianhe will serve as the management and control center and can host three astronauts for a period of three to six months, the longest stay by Chinese astronauts in LEO if accomplished successfully. The earlier longest stay by Chinese astronauts in LEO was 33 days on the Tiangong 2. The Tianhe is the largest spacecraft China has built and launched to space to date. By 2022, the two auxiliary lab modules, the Wentian (“Quest for Heavens”) and Mengtian (“Dreaming of Heavens”) will be attached to the Tianhe, the total weight of which will be 66 tons. When spacecraft dock with the Tianhe during cargo missions and crew transfers, the weight will increase to 100 tons. The Tiangong space station is designed to last for 10 years, but it could be extended to about 15 years with repairs and refits. Given the International Space Station (ISS) is funded through to 2024 and faces questions of retirement over future funding questions, the Chinese space station may be the only option for a human presence and scientific experiments in LEO after 2024.

The Significance of the Tiangong Space Station

The Tiangong space station is a significant development in Chinese space infrastructure. 

First, China will develop capacity for in-orbit assembly of a multi modular T-shaped space station, and understand how to support human life in LEO for extended periods. Chinese astronauts will learn to conduct extravehicular activities, and work with mechanical arms to install, test, and upgrade in orbit. As Bai Linhou, deputy chief designer of the space station at the China Academy of Space Technology, under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has stated:

“We will learn how to assemble, operate, and maintain large spacecraft in orbit, and we aim to build Tiangong into a state-level space lab supporting the long stay of astronauts and large-scale scientific, technological and application experiments… the station is also expected to contribute to the peaceful development and utilization of space resources through international cooperation, as well as to enrich technologies and experience for China’s future explorations into deeper space.”

For the very first time, Chinese astronauts will recycle urine into distilled water, and purify it further for electrolytic oxygen generation. This is new for China since its earlier human missions to the Tiangong 2 space station were sent stocked with water and oxygen launched from Earth as cargo since stay times were short. But for missions extending up to six months, an in-space life support system had to be developed. Cui Guangzhi, a designer of the urine treatment system, a subsystem of the life support system developed with the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation Limited, stated that “the recycling of water can reduce the load burden of cargo craft and greatly cut the operating cost of the space station.”

Second, developing technologies for the space station to include a life support system extends China’s space capacity for its goals for the Moon, to include a robotic research base and human presence on the lunar surface. Bai has stated that “the life support technology is a must for astronauts to stay on the moon or explore deeper space. We will develop the technology step by step, first recycling water and oxygen in Tiangong, and then planting vegetables and crops in space to gradually realize food self-sufficiency.”

Third, constructing the Chinese space station is of global strategic significance as it offers an alternative to the International Space Station (ISS) for conducting space science experiments and launching astronauts for stays from nations aligned with China. China, in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, issued a call for applications in May 2018 for scientific experiments to be hosted in its space station. Out of 42 applications received, nine were selected from institutions based in Belgium, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Norway, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Switzerland. Some of the experiments to be conducted touch on space medicine, bioengineering, microgravity, the effects of space radiation, and plant growth. Tiangong will be able to host about 14 internal and 50 external ports for space science experiments.

Fourth, the logistics for in-orbit construction and assembly builds a holistic Chinese space infrastructure that will meet the nation’s stated goals of constructing space solar power satellites in geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO), as well as dispatching future missions to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. For instance, China’s BeiDou Navigation System played a critical role in the launch and docking of the Tianzhou 2 cargo spacecraft with the core module Tianhe on May 29, carrying about 6.8 tons of supplies. Compared to the two days taken by the Tianzhou 1, which required human assistance to dock with the Tiangong 2 in 2017, the Tianzhou 2 guided itself autonomously and docked with the Tianhe within eight hours of launch by utilizing location information provided by BeiDou. The short time for docking indicates that China can respond faster to emergency situations and conduct disaster relief and rescue of astronauts if the need arises. Faster docking times cut costs and indicate a capacity for bringing in more biological sample experiments, all aimed at developing a permanent presence and mature robotic autonomous capacity, as well as create a bioregenerative life support system in space, something China is working toward. 

Fifth, along with the Chinese space station, China is launching a modular telescope, called Xuntian (“Survey of the Heavens”). This telescope has a similar resolution to the Hubble telescope but is projected as having 300 times the Hubble’s field of view. The telescope will, among other things, have an ability to detect near Earth asteroids, as part of China’s asteroid mining and planetary defense goals. More importantly, Xuntian will be in a parallel orbit to Tiangong with the capacity to dock with the space station, thereby making repair and refueling much easier and less expensive. 

Sixth, the Chinese space station has two berth ports that will connect to the two lab capsules and three docking ports in the Tianhe core module. This will help China develop critical capacities for simultaneous docking and add an additional module to the space station, if required, in the future. 

Military Space Implications

As per China’s 2019 White Paper on Defense, “outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition [emphasis added]…outer space security provides strategic assurance for national and social development.” The Tianhe core module and the Wentian space lab have robotic arms that can extend up to 10 meters and grab 20 tons of space objects. China, similar to its explanation for the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite fitted with a robotic arm, indicated that the robotic arms on its space station are for debris removal. The strategic concern is that robotic arms can be activated to grab an adversary satellite and destroy it during conflict. President Xi Jinping has called upon the PLA Strategic Support Force to develop new doctrines, concepts and build upon Space Domain Awareness (SDA) highlighting the significance of space for the future Chinese battlefield. 

Future Goals

CASC, in its 2020 Blue Book of China Aerospace Science and Technology Activities, specified that the Shenzhou-12 will be followed by the Tianzhou 3 cargo spacecraft and the Shenzhou 13 astronaut transfer mission later this year. Once the space station is completed in 2022 and space logistics and infrastructure are in place, China will turn its attention to the Moon, utilizing the experience it gathers from life support missions in maintaining Tiangong. Already China is developing a new launch vehicle, a next generation spacecraft, and a lunar lander for its lunar missions in the next five years. The next generation spacecraft is being built to transfer humans beyond LEO to the Moon. In May 2020, the next generation spacecraft built by CASC was launched into orbit for a flight test. It is designed to be reusable with only its heatshield requiring replacement as per its deputy chief designer, Guo Bin. The CASC 2020 Blue Book specified that the trial run of the lunar spacecraft “lays a solid foundation for a future manned landing on the Moon.” One technology that was tested during that test flight was 3D printing to augment autonomous manufacturing in space.

Chinese authorities have upgraded space to the status of critical infrastructure requiring the highest level of investment and innovation. In 2019, in a speech to the scientists and engineers of the Chang’e 4 lunar far side landing mission, Xi highlighted the critical goal of turning China into an aerospace power aimed at national rejuvenation. In his congratulatory note to the engineers and scientists after Tianhe was launched, Xi expressed his hope that “you will vigorously carry forward both the spirit of the “two bombs and one satellite” [referring to China’s early nuclear and space projects] and the spirit of manned spaceflight, be self-dependent and innovative to achieve victory in space station construction, and contribute to building a modern socialist country.” 

On the occasion of China’s space flight day, April 24, 2020, Xi in a letter to senior Chinese space scientists wrote that they should “strive to strengthen and expand our space exploration and make our country a great space power as soon as possible.” Shao Limin, deputy manager in charge of Shenzhou-12 spacecraft stated that “The task plan for Shenzhou-12 was initially made in 1992 at the very beginning of China’s manned space project. Step by step and steadily, we have managed to stay true to our original aspirations.” 

Propelled by a long term strategy, China is steadily meeting its stated space goals, set as far back as 1992, and is moving toward developing a presence in cislunar space and beyond by 2036.