ONEt 3:37 am ET on Monday, China launched the final key component of its space station, the latest step in the country’s efforts to become a leading space power.
The Mengtian (“dreaming of the skies”) laboratory module, atop a carrier rocket, was launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan Island. It is expected to dock at the Tiangong (“heavenly palace”) Space Station within several hours.
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Designed to conduct microgravity and low-Earth orbit experiments, Mengtian will be China’s second addition to Tiangong this year, following July’s deployment of Wentian (“quest for the skies”), a laboratory unit equipped for biological research.
Completing Tiangong’s core structures is, in itself, a feat, given that its first core unit was sent into low-earth orbit only in April last year. Tiangong makes China only the third country in the world, besides the US and Russia, to send astronauts and build a space station.
China still has many other extraterrestrial ambitions in the works. Within the next decade, he plans to build a base on the south side of the moon and from there deploy a telescope with 300 times the field of view of Hubble. It also plans to collect samples from Mars, among other goals. Some of these developments are scheduled to take place earlier than similar deadlines set by NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA).
It is this steady progress of the Chinese space program that worries American politicians and senior military officials. Some believe the US is lagging behind in the new “space race” – echoing rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War – with the moon as the finish line once again. The US, in a rush to build its own lunar base, is already attempting to test rockets for round trips to the moon.
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Tiangong will not compete with the 16-module International Space Station (ISS), China says, with a maximum of six modules under previous plans. But with the ISS retiring after 2030, unless private US companies like SpaceX and Tesla replace it with their own stations, Tiangong will be the only space station orbiting Earth. Tiangong may even have forced the US decision last year to delay the decommissioning of the ISS, which was originally scheduled for 2024, says Quentin Parker of the University of Hong Kong’s Space Research Laboratory.
“Competition is good,” Parker tells TIME. “It helps you train, it helps you improve performance, it lowers costs and you get new developments faster.”
China-US competition in space
As competition grows, China and the US accuse each other of militarizing space. The Chinese space program’s opaque ties to the People’s Liberation Army fuel Washington’s concerns about using civilian facilities for surveillance and intelligence, even though NASA has a history of working with US defense agencies. Citing security concerns, the US in 2011 passed a law barring China from joining the ISS and requiring FBI approval for any exchange of space intelligence with the country. More recently, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has accused China of planning to colonize the moon, of stealing technology and of using 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 how the US refuses to cooperate with China in space when Russia, its Cold War space rival and a perennial threat to Washington’s security, may still shuttle astronauts to the ISS.
“You can’t tell me the Russians aren’t trying to spy on the US and vice versa,” he tells TIME. “But we’ve had a very successful partnership on the International Space Station because nothing we do with the ISS has military value.” Russia, however, plans to withdraw from the ISS consortium by 2024.
In its January White Paper, China emphasized “peaceful cooperation” with international partners in space science and governance. However, some worry that cooperation with China would help its military. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that Beijing can 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 by European and Chinese satellites to advance earth science research since 2004. Karl Bergquist, ESA Administrator for the International Relations Division, says the agency he doesn’t see why it “shouldn’t work with China as the data being exchanged is not for military use but for science.
“The more data our scientists have to work with, the better it will be for all of us,” Bergquist tells TIME.
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For its part, China does not want to close the doors of its space station — Tiangong is open to all UN member states. ESA still plans to have its astronauts aboard the Tiangong, although that has been put on hold pending further discussions with Beijing. One of the station’s designers told state media that Tiangong is “inclusive” and designed to be adaptable for non-Chinese astronauts. And at least 1,000 science experiments will be conducted on the station, Nature reports, mostly involving Chinese researchers, but also projects led by researchers from 17 other countries and regions such as Kenya, Russia, Mexico, Japan and Peru, some of which are struggling to support their own space initiatives.
While the US has decades of operational experience ahead of the Chinese space program, China’s willingness to cooperate with other countries may cement its position as a space power today. As of 2016, China has signed 46 space cooperation agreements with 19 different countries and regions.
“I do not believe [China] he wants to be confrontational,” Parker tells TIME. “I think they want people to like them. I think they want to be trusted.”
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