The Tianhe-1 module launched this week is at the heart of what is supposed to be a three-part space station. On the surface, he looks pale compared to the 22-year-old ISS. The ISS is a football-field-sized monster weighing around 420 tonnes, while the much smaller T-shaped Chinese Space Station (CSS) will weigh only 80-100 tonnes, closer to the size and mass of the old Russian station Mir. The Tianhe-1 module is only 22 tons and 16.6 meters long. And after 12 missions this year and the next to put it all together, the completed station will still be roughly half the length of the ISS.
China looks good with it. “We had no intention of competing with the ISS in terms of scale,” said Gu Yidong, chief scientist of China’s Human Exploration Program, said Scientific American.
And that doesn’t mean the station won’t have useful space capabilities. Tianhe will be the main living area for all onboard astronauts, and the next two segments, Wentian and Mengtian, will support a series of science experiments taking advantage of the station’s microgravity. They can study the study of fluid dynamics and phase changes, for example, or the growth and evolution of organisms.
There will be 14 refrigerator-sized experiment racks inside the station, and another 50 experimental anchor points that can be mounted outside to expose materials to the vacuum of the station. space. China has already contacted international partners to solicit experiences. Five docking ports and a host of robotic arms will ensure safe visits to other spacecraft and offer the possibility of expanding the station itself.
Perhaps more excitingly, the station will play an important role in helping China deploy and operate an all-new space telescope, Xuntian, intended to compete with NASA’s aging Hubble Space Telescope, with a 300 times greater field of view. large and a similar resolution. It will carry out observations in ultraviolet and visible light, conducting surveys related to dark matter and dark energy, cosmology, galactic evolution and the detection of nearby objects. Scheduled to launch in 2024, Xuntian will be able to anchor with CSS for easy repairs and maintenance.
In addition, the station can serve as a platform to test technologies that will be essential to one day maintaining a long-term presence on the Moon and Mars. These include housing and survival systems, solar power, and protection against radiation and micrometeorite impacts.
This is all good, but as Lincoln Hines of Cornell University points out, the station’s real goal seems to be prestige: to position China as part of an exclusive club of space powers that operate a permanent outpost in orbit, strengthening nationalist support within its borders. “I have no doubt that there are people in the Chinese scientific community who are really excited about what they could do with CSS,” says Hines. “But from the point of view of the central government to support this big, ambitious project, it is a really strong symbol that allows China to say to its people, ‘We are technologically powerful and can compete with the United States.'”
And it also brings China closer to competing with the United States in “soft power”. The United States is the main funder of the ISS, an extremely expensive public good that benefits the rest of the world. It enables interesting scientific and technological experiments to be carried out, but the station’s greatest impact undoubtedly comes from its status as a beacon of international cooperation.
We can expect the CSS to provide the same kind of diplomatic advantages to China by helping to strengthen the country’s ties with other nations – especially at a time when the country faces quite fierce scrutiny for human rights violations against Uyghurs, political dissidents and activists in the Hong Kong Democratic Movement.
“China’s effort is new and dynamic,” Goswami says, while the future of the ISS is murky. “This signals to the world that China openly challenges the United States for space leadership in all fields and that it is a capable partner.”
Even if these potential benefits are never realized, it might not make much of a difference for China. Unlike American public officials, the Chinese Communist Party does not have to justify its expense report to its citizens.
“From my perspective, the number one goal of the Chinese government is its own survival,” Hines says. “And so, these projects are very aligned with these national interests, even if they don’t make much sense in broader geopolitical considerations or if they have a lot of scientific contributions.”