The Tianhe-1 module launched this week is the core of what is said to be a three-part space station. In addition, it looks pale compared to the 22-year-old ISS. The ISS is a football-sized behemoth with a weight of 420 metric tons, while the much smaller T-shaped Chinese Space Station (CSS) can weigh 80 to 100 tons, which is almost the size. and mass at the former Mir station in Russia. The Tianhe-1 module weighs only 22 tons and is 16.6 meters long. And after 12 missions this year and next put the whole thing together, the completed station is still almost half the length of the ISS.
China is just as good at that. “We don’t want to compete with the ISS on the scale,” Gu Yidong, chief scientist of China’s human analysis program, said. said Scientific American.
And that doesn’t mean the station won’t boast some useful space capabilities. Tianhe is the main residence of the astronauts on board, and the next two parts, Wentian and Mengtian, will support many science experiments that take advantage of the station’s microgravity. They may examine the study of fluid dynamics and phase changes, for example, or the growth and development of organisms.
There are 14 refrigerator -like experiment racks inside the station, and another 50 dock points for experiments that can be climbed outside to expose materials to the space station. International partners have already reached out to China to request experiments. Five spacecraft ports and multiple robotic weapons will ensure safe visitation from other spacecraft and set up the possibility of expanding the station itself.
Perhaps most excitingly, the station will play a key role in helping China deploy and operate a new space telescope, the Xuntian, intended to rival NASA’s aging Hubble Space Telescope, which has a field of view 300 times greater and the same resolution. It will make observations of ultraviolet and visible light, running investigations related to black matter and dark energy, cosmology, galactic evolution, and visibility of nearby objects. Scheduled to launch in 2024, Xuntian will be able to hear CSS for quick fixes and maintenance.
In addition, the station could serve as a platform for testing technologies critical for maintaining a long -term presence on the moon and Mars one day. These include habitats and life support systems, solar power, and protection from the effects of radiation and micrometeorite.
Everything is fine, but as Lincoln Hines at Cornell University points out, the real purpose of the station is as an honor – to position China as part of an exclusive club of space powers running a permanent outpost. in orbit, increasing nationalist support within its borders. “I have no doubt that there are people in the Chinese science community who are really excited about what they can do through CSS,” Hines said. “But from the central government’s perspective to support this big, ambitious project, it’s a strong symbol that has allowed China to say to its population, ‘We are technologically strong and can compete with the United States.'”
And it also puts China close to competing with the U.S. for “soft power.” The U.S. is the main cook of the ISS, a much more expensive public utility that can benefit the rest of the world. It helped achieve some interesting science and tech experiments, but the greatest impact on the station could come from its status as a beacon of international cooperation.
We can expect CSS to provide equally different diplomatic benefits for China by helping to strengthen the country’s relations with other countries-especially at a time when the country is facing brutal scrutiny for violations. human rights abuses against Uyghurs, political dissidents, and activists in The Hong Kong democracy movement.
“China’s effort is new and alive,” Goswami said, while the future of the ISS is bleak. “It signals to the world that China is openly competing with the U.S. for space leadership across the board, and it is a capable partner.
Even if these potential benefits are not known, they may not make a difference in China. Unlike U.S. public officials, the Chinese Communist Party does not have to justify its expense sheet to citizens.
“In my view, the number one goal of the Chinese government is self-sufficiency,” Hines said. “And so these projects are in line with the interests of the house, even if they don’t cause much broader geopolitical consideration or have in many ways scientific contributions.”