In the early hours of this morning, the tranquility of the remote Gobi desert was shattered by the sound of a brand new spacecraft hurtling towards the sky.
This launch, and that of the Tiangong-1 at the end of September, represents a massive leap forward for China’s human spaceflight program, further establishing its presence in orbit.
Birth of a space station
The next steps for China will see the Tiangong-1 module occupied by astronauts from December, to achieve the aim of having a permanently occupied space habitat by 2020.
Succesfully docking Shenzhou-8 to Tiangong-1 will be crucial. This will be the first time China has carried out a docking manoeuvre between an unmanned module and spacecraft. This capability is vital in being able to assemble more modules to build a viable space station.
In order to attempt this docking, the Tiangong-1 will descend from its current orbit of 350km to 320km, which will enable the Shenzhou spacecraft to dock.
The two craft will operate in joined mode for 12 days before the astronauts return to earth. The Tiangong-1 will then be boosted back to 350 km. All these operations are part of proving China’s technology and resources are adequate for developing a space station.
One piece at a time…
A larger, 22-tonne science module, Tiangong-2, will be launched in 2013. This will also dock with Tiangong-1, more than doubling the size of the space station. In 2016 Tiangong-3 will be added, completing the space station with a combined orbiting mass of more than 60 tonnes – approximately half the size of the Russian Mir station.
The Tiangong orbital station will have provision for up to four spacecraft to be docked at any one time, providing flexibility in the scheduling of crew transfers and operations.
Like the International Space Station, the Tiangong is an interconnecting habitat and science module, effectively a Lego-block space station, facilitating expansion and reconfiguration.
Tiangong will form a basis for China to develop long-term life support systems to facilitate an ongoing presence in space.
Launching a superpower
It’s ironic the United States has provided the financial means for China to surge into space. The formerly uncontested space superpower, which was forced to retire its shuttle fleet this year, has effectively funded China’s space ascendancy through its multi-trillion dollar borrowings from the communist nation.
China’s strong financial position internationally has also facilitated rapid growth in advanced materials, computer-aided machining and electronics. With a low labour rate and parity in technology, it has the financial means and capability to establish a long-term presence in space.
China is not only surging ahead in the technology for human space flight, but it has taken a proactive stance in the United Nations, advocating revisions to the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space treaty.
China has sought to add a specific aim to the treaty: “to prevent the weaponization [sic] of an arms race in outer space, and to use outer space for peaceful purposes.”
What we are seeing with the launch of these “divine vessels” is the establishment of a third major spacefaring nation, joining the podium with Russia and the United States, whose influence is certainly waning.
Just as it is down here on Earth, China’s ascendancy to superpower status in space is seemingly unstoppable. It has the technology, the resources, the manpower and the diplomatic clout to achieve its galactic aspirations.
The cash-strapped US may just have to sit back and watch as the space race slips away.