At the height of the Cold War, a massive expedition beyond our planet set the stage for a dramatic post-nuclear power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. fueled the epoch of the 1980s, propelled new technologies, shaped the space agency, and laid the groundwork for future progress in nearly every mechanical aspect of our society.

Between the United States and now Russia, both countries have long been giants of the space industry, but today there are new challengers in the space race. Later this year, China will put the finishing touches on its first space outpost, the Tiangong Space Station (meaning Heavenly Palace). China’s National Space Administration launched the first phase of its multi-module station more than ten years ago. Station construction now concludes with the addition of his third and final module, the lab cabin Mengtian, needed to complete his compact T-shaped station. structure. The Tiangong base will be China’s “most adventurous space venture,” the agency said.

Unlike the International Space Station (ISS), which exists thanks to a complex of many other nations and their space agencies, Tiangong is the only independent space station to operate once, potentially escalating geopolitical tensions. It’s a great feat. The ability to create and support such equipment in orbit often reflects the country’s combined global power and influence. , certainly not robust, but surprisingly packed in the decades leading up to the Tiangong.Near the end of the 20th century, China was the fifth country in the world to successfully launch a satellite into space. and. The latest fire to fuel their fierce resolve lies in how space science is intertwined with developments, including China’s national security, economic development, and public science and education initiatives.

“It wasn’t always unquestionable. It wasn’t always perfectly consistent,” says Alanna Krolikowski, a political scientist at the Missouri University of Science and Technology who specializes in science and technology policy. “But Chinese leaders have been eyeing space activities for a very long time.”

Much of the initial impetus for nations to invest time and resources in the space scene stems, in part, from both international foresight and isolation from many early joint space programs. was Especially in the 80s and 90s, China faced many domestic and economic challenges (including the overthrow of fiscal and cultural policies that had hampered its growth and global commerce), but China soon saw its space sector take over. I realized that it will be a very important area in the future. Krolikowski said: Such dedication and self-sufficiency in more advanced space exploration is one reason why China’s achievements (and sometimes failures) are often in the spotlight.

In recent years, China’s frenetic push to expand the reach of its space activities has led to a satellite navigation network (as powerful as the US-supported GPS system), unmanned probes to Mars, and exploration of the other side of the earth. The first spacecraft was born. Lunar Chang’e 4. Discoveries made by the semi-autonomous Yutu-2 rover, a companion to the robotic probe, could also help pave the way for future robotic he treks of Earth’s moon’s Antarctica. .

[Related: Take a closer look at Tiangong 3]

At the same time, the country’s commercial space industry is beginning to blossom as many private ventures begin launching new vehicles such as cargo-carrying spacecraft and other satellites. A fully independent space station could serve as a starting point for future efforts, pushing scientific investigation to new heights. This includes advancing China’s long-held goal of one day landing Tyconauts (the Chinese equivalent of NASA astronauts) on the moon. The station will serve as a gateway for many planned ventures, but Tiangong will be much smaller than the International Space Station and will have a smaller crew capacity. Despite these constraints, the ship still has enough space to conduct very important scientific experiments.

Along with the second module, Wentian, the new Mengtian module is a pressurized laboratory about 60 feet long that researchers can use for microgravity experiments and other physics and human exploration. You can conduct research in aerospace technology. Tiangong will also allow China to explore mutually beneficial partnerships with other countries. Once operational, the station during its lifetime he supported over 1,000 experiments, many of which were submitted by researchers around the world.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and historian of astronautics, explains how the station compares to China’s Space Station Telescope (CSST), Xuntian. I am particularly interested in supporting. Xuntian is said to be the equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope, but its field of view is 300 times that of his 32-year-old observatory, so in fact he is NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Close, he says McDowell.

“This new generation of telescopes can see much more of the sky at once, but with slightly less detail. [than Hubble or the James Webb Telescope]’ says McDowell. “We’re mapping large areas of the sky instead of looking at what we already know is there and investigating it precisely.”

[Related: With a new set of cracks, the ISS is really showing its age]

It will be a while before either telescope is ready to stare into the abyss, but what is clear is that many Chinese projects are applying lessons learned by their competitors to replicate what has already been achieved. It follows an intentional pattern of unique design. For example, from the outside, the Tiangong station is an almost identical copy of Russia’s Mir space station, which survived in orbit for almost 15 years before collapsing in the South Pacific in 2001. One obvious difference in the Chinese design is that the nearly 20-foot-tall robotic arm can move various modules or support other spaceflight activities. China’s past problems with uncontrolled rocket debris should also be better addressed if authorities want to support sustainable space exploration as Earth’s atmosphere begins to become more crowded with human-made debris. There is no public plan for how the country will address these concerns going forward, but the country is the first and only place to test experimental space debris mitigation technology.

NASA is now prohibited from collaborating with China or Chinese-owned ventures, including through funding and other operational partnerships. Future cooperation between Tiangong and the ISS is also highly unlikely, given the US tendency to lead international operations. McDowell says they may be wary of joining partnerships that are open to them.

But the station “is very attractive to many international partners who don’t have such a comprehensive space program,” says Krolikowski. “Even major European countries, as well as developing countries that want a smaller participation or a supportive role, can find attractive areas of cooperation with China.”

Still, while China may be lagging behind in adopting responsible space dos and don’ts, much of the political and scientific community is skeptical of China’s presence in space. I am optimistic that they will start catching up as

“As time goes on and they mature as space forces, they will also mature in the sense of being good space citizens,” McDowell says.

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