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A New Age ‘Heavenly Palace’: China’s International Space Station; By Jannathul Firdos

Image Courtesy: The Hindu Businessline 

Article 55/2019


China’s new space station, “Tiangong” will be launched into space by the new Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket by the end of 2019. This space station is to support research projects in fields such as astronomy, space life, science and biotechnology. The International Space Station (ISS) established by the US is going to be terminated in 2020. For its own reasons, the US decided not to engage in cooperation with China in space activities although other countries like Russia, Europe and Japan had access to the ISS. That may partly be the basis for China to independently establish a space station[i]. China will reportedly not be competing with ISS but replacing it until a new version of ISS comes up. China is seeking international collaboration in experiments on the space station to promote sustainable global development and cooperation. [ii]

A space station, also known as an orbital station or an orbital space station, is a spacecraft capable of supporting a human crew in orbit for an extended period of time that lacks major propulsion or landing systems. Stations must have docking ports to allow other spacecraft to dock to transfer crew and supplies. The purpose of maintaining an orbital outpost varies depending on the program. As of 2018, once fully operational and permanently inhabited space station is in low earth orbit: the International Space Station, which is used to study the effects of long-term space flight on the human body as well as to provide a location to conduct a greater number and length of scientific studies than is possible on other space vehicles. China, India, Russia, and the US, as well as a few private companies, are all planning other stations for the coming decades. The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, intended to allow crewed landings on the lunar South Pole, is under ground-based construction. [iii]

Major Achievements, Challenges and Learning

The space program of the People’s Republic of China is directed by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Its technological roots can be traced back to the late 1950s when China began a ballistic missile program in response to perceived American (and, later, Soviet) threats. However, the first Chinese crewed space program only began several decades later, when an accelerated program of technological development culminated in Yang Liwei’s successful 2003 flight aboard Shenzhou-5. This achievement made China the third country to independently send humans into space. [iv]

A test module of China’s space station (CSS), Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace”) was sent up in 2011. It was carried by an 11-FT1 rocket. Later, China’s spacecraft Shenzhou-9 carrying the crew docked with it. The crew included Liu Yang, China’s 1st woman in space in training. Tiangong-1 had onboard instruments with multispectral earth observation capabilities. After two years Tiangong-1 was brought down and replaced by an upgraded Tiangong-2 that was sent up in 2016. It was fitted with an external robotic arm to test operations outside that might involve repairs and orbit maintenance. [v] Tiangong-2 will also be deorbited soon. All operations in space are full of challenges in ensuring the success of the missions ensuring the safety of humans and the expensive spacecraft itself. Tiangong-1 and 2 are viewed by China as experimental modules meant to demonstrate orbital rendezvous and docking capabilities. [vi]

Successfully launching the CSS before the ISS reaches the end of its life in 2020, would enable China to have its platform for conducting research and strengthening China’s “Independent Innovation Capabilities”. Operating the station could also enable China to leverage diplomatic opportunities. Countries interested in continued research in space could be compelled to look to the Chinese space program in the absence of other alternatives. In 2018 China announced that “All member states of the United Nations are welcome to cooperate with China Space Station”. The European Space Agency has already begun considering how they might coordinate joint-ventures with China.

Additionally, China hopes to use its manned space station as a stepping stone to future achievements in space. China is seeking to enhance its domestic capacity for scientific and technological innovation by building a permanently manned space station. Developing further space capabilities can enhance China’s international prestige and enhance its technological prowess. Characteristically, China makes long-range plans with foresight. There is a realization that in another 5 years, the Chinese Space Station will be the only one in the world and prepares for it.[vii]

Operation and Development Planning of the Space Station

The in-orbit assembly of the basic configuration of the three modules of CSS is planned to be completed around 2022 when the station is operational and able to carry out large-scale space science research. Astronauts will be living on the space station for a long term, with crew rotations guaranteeing an uninterrupted orbit presence. The space station supports the long-term stay of astronauts without interruption or unmanned short-term flights. [viii]

Policies and Measures for Development of China’s Space Station

The Chinese government has formulated policies and measures to support the space industry and create favourable conditions for its sustainable, sound and rapid development. These include the following.

  1. Arrange space activities in a scientific manner.

  2. Largely improve innovation capability in space science and technology.

  3. Promote transformation and upgrading space industries in an all-around way; accelerating satellite application industry; strengthening the legislative work; improve a diversified investment system.

  4. Step up the training of talent space professionals

  5. Strengthening popular space science education.[ix]

Space Station Paves Way for Manned Space Exploration

China is preparing a permanent moon base to pave the way for future manned missions to Mars. China made history at the start of the year when its Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover become the first to explore the moon’s far side. But the country’s extraterrestrial ambitions will not end there. China will begin work on a moon base within the next decade to ready for future missions to Mars. The research facility will be based near the moon’s ice-rich        South Pole and will be shared with multiple countries. Ice is an important commodity as it will both provide water and be used as a component for rocket fuel. And the lunar base will not only serve as a platform for research but also as a refuelling station for exploring the solar system. The whole region has been comprehensively mapped out by NASA’S robotic lunar reconnaissance orbiter. Reliable water supply will be essential to future manned lunar missions, as is required for both human life support and also the production of rocket fuel. [x]

This fact will position the moon as a key pit-stop for future manned craft en-route to Mars and future forays out into space. Future space missions will foster growth in Chinese aviation, robotics and artificial intelligence research. In the more immediate future, Beijing will be sending another spacecraft to the moon later this year, in December. Zhang Kejian, the administrator of the China National Space Administration said, the probe will collect and return samples of moon rock for analysis and display back on the earth. [xi]

Rapid Rise in New Innovation

China has come a long way in space technology. Science and technology in China have developed rapidly during the 1990s to the 2010s. The Chinese government has emphasized funding, reform and societal status on science and technology as a fundamental part of socio-economic development of the country as well as for national prestige. A country’s ability to innovate and produce advanced technologies provides economic strength, military power and an intangible benefit of perceived leadership. The advancement of innovations in science and technology also plays a vital part of the solution to any of the problems that the country faces. China is now increasingly targeting indigenous innovation and aims to reform the remaining weakness. China’ advanced technology is the result of the integration of various related technological experience. Science is becoming more and more important in the Chinese Space Program. They are not satisfied with the achievements that they have made in the field of space technology and space application. With the development of the Chinese Space Program, they are trying to contribute to human knowledge about the universe. They are making strides in everything from human space flight to space science and planetary exploration. Its power lies not in unlimited funds but in carefully chosen projects and pursuit of clearly targeted goals. [xii]

China is running “a hundred-year marathon”, primarily to get ahead of the US. That ambition still (get) persists. If anything, the success so far makes the desire stronger and the path easier. There is tremendous potential for scientific experiments in the microgravity environment within the space station to lead to remarkable innovative applications here on earth. [xiii]

On June 12, 2019, six winning projects were selected, and three were conditionally selected. They were carefully evaluated by a team of around 60 experts from UNOOSA, CMSA and the international space community. The winning Institutions come from a variety of countries, including Belgium, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Netherland, Norway, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Switzerland. The selected winners will have the chance to physically access space by flying their experiments on CSS, developing their capabilities in space science and technology. The move by China to call for projects from other countries demonstrates its willingness to have international cooperation in carrying forward the experiments to be conducted in CSS. [xiv]

Future Prospects

The International Space Station is nearing the end of its life. CSS will be the only facility for some time. Unlike ISS, CSS may have its international co-operation limited to countries with little experience in the field. Deterioration in US-Russia relationship may favour cooperation with Russia; others too may be tempted to join. [xv]

It is challenging to an extent for India to cooperate with China. China is far ahead of India in every sphere. Moreover, India has its own plans for manned space missions and exploration in outer space. India needs to examine the pros and cons of cooperation with China. [xvi]


The Chinese Space Station program works towards to improve the human understanding of the universe. However, the world’s first quantum communication satellite QUESS in 2016 and China’s improvement in different fields in space technology have made the US and other countries perceive it as a challenge. Much of the Chinese space program is portrayed as a potential threat to the US and other countries. But China claims it is looking for equality, recognition and respect from the world’s space community. Soon the International Space Station is going to reach the end of its mission. When it happens the CSS going to be the only space station in the world. Being an only space station is an advantage to China. This would make other countries perceive China as a key actor leading in space technology. China is already cooperating with Russia, the UK, and European Space Agencies to everyone’s benefit.[xvii] It is not China which is a ‘threat’ to the peaceful use of space. Shi Zhongjun, Ambassador of China stated that “the China Space Station belongs not only to China but also to the world”. It will be home of goodwill and a home of cooperation for mutual benefit. The Chinese are actively encouraging it, saying astronauts from any nation are welcome. China is determined to quicken the pace of developing its space industry. And actively carry out international space exchanges and cooperation, therefore that achievement in a wider scope, at a deeper level and with higher standards. [xviii]

China’s ASAT test is refuelling debate around the world particularly in the US, between proponents of regulating the use of outer space and those who insist on America’s absolute free reign in this realm. After the ASAT test, China’s Foreign Ministry stated that “China has always advocated the peaceful use of space and opposes the militarization of space”. But this assurance from the Chinese government has not satisfied other countries like Japan, India, and particularly the US [xix]. Robert Ross, an MIT security studies program who collaborating with Beijing university’s Institute of strategic studies says, the ASAT test is part of the country’s larger military modernization, which is seen by the Chinese as “simply prudent behaviour to improve security against the other great power in the system”. The US has enjoyed a monopoly of space-based C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] for the past twenty years. It is to be expected that China would work to end this monopoly. The long-term Chinese objectives are to establish a strategic balance with countries like the US and Russia and to break up their monopoly on the utilization of space. China would not desire conflict in space, as it would trigger a backlash on Earth and harm Chinese interests as well. China in the current era is observed to carry out international engagement without escalation of the conflict, despite ongoing differences. ‘Tiangong’ reflects a similar approach in space, where peace prevails. China’s leaders have asserted repeatedly that China does not and will not interfere in the internal affairs of or threaten other countries. China is not interested in challenging the US space goals short of militarization or related capabilities that impinge on China’s core national interests. China aims for peaceful development and a stable international environment [xx].

(Jannathul Firdos is an intern at Chennai Centre for China Studies. She pursuing her M.A. in Defence and Strategic Studies from the University of Madras.)


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[viii] Nowakowshi, Tomasz. “China tiangong-2 space laboratory to be deorbited after july-2019”, China National Space Administration, October7,2018.

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[x] Fish, Tom.”China moon base: permanent moon space station ready within decade for future mars mission’, express news, April 26,2019.

[xi]Aerospace corporation.”A brief history of space exploration”, January1,2018.

[xii] Manchester, Historian.”A brief history of space exploration’, February16,2015.

[xiii] Sullivan F.John,”Reviewing the hundred-year marathon: Running on flimsy historical grounds”, Real clear defense news, April11,2019.

[xiv]United Nation.”UNOOSA and CMSA announce winners of opportunity to fly experiments on board China Space Station”, United Nations Office for outer space affairs, June12,2019.

[xv] Luzin, Pavel.”Cooperation in Space can still Bridge differences between U.S and Russia, The Russia File,August29,2017.

[xvi] Gettleman, Jeffrey.”India shot down a satellite, Modi says, shifting balance of power in Asia”, space news, March27,2019.

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[xviii] Xinhua.”spotlight:China welcomes all UNmember states to jointly utilize its space station”, Xinhuanet news, May29,2018.

[xix]Panda, Jagannath. “the ASAT test and China’s space ambitions”, institute for defense studies, February12,2007.>idsastrategic comments

[xx]Williams, Mark.”China’s antisatellite missile test: why?”, March8,2007.

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