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Soupjoe5 OP t1_iye8v7q wrote



China has successfully sent a new team of astronauts to its Tiangong space station, a significant achievement that not only marks the country’s first in-orbit crew handover but possibly also the beginning of continuous occupancy at the station.

The rendezvous in space marks a milestone for China’s rapidly advancing space program as Beijing aims to catch up with and eventually surpass the United States as the dominant power in space.

The three-man crew arrived at the space station Wednesday aboard a Shenzhou-15 spacecraft to take over from three colleagues who had arrived in June and are set to return next week.

The new team will stay for six months and focus on installing equipment around the newly completed, three-module station, which will host a variety of experiments in near-zero gravity and become only the second permanently inhabited space outpost after the NASA-led International Space Station.

The Tiangong station is set to operate for about a decade in low-Earth orbit, while the ISS is expected to conclude operations by 2030.

While Wednesday’ success has given the Chinese nation reason to celebrate as it grapples with COVID-19 lockdowns and protests, there are concerns in the United States and elsewhere about the security implications of China’s ambitious space program.

“Beijing is working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” the U.S. intelligence community said in this year’s threat assessment report.

But just how advanced is China’s space program?

The Chinese program started in the late 1950s and the country launched its first satellite in 1970 using the Long March-1 rocket. The program has long been tied to the military, with the Long March rocket series being closely linked to Beijing’s efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.

China is no exception in allowing a role for the military in space, but unlike the United States and its partners, the China National Space Administration, the country’s main civilian space agency, is heavily influenced by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

To speed up program development, China also relied on technologies made in other countries, particularly Russia, in the field of human spaceflight, said Pablo de Leon, chair of the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota. De Leon pointed to similarities between Russian and Chinese space suits and re-entry vehicles, among other things.


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“The Chinese improved in some areas but they saved a lot of time and money using Russian technology,” he said.

In recent decades, the Chinese program has developed at an incredibly fast pace, with Beijing investing heavily to turn the country into a comprehensive space power behind only the U.S. in terms of accomplishments and capabilities.

The overarching aim is to transform China into an “all-round world-leading country in space equipment and technology” by 2045, according to Chinese state media.

“China's space program has been growing by leaps and bounds,” said Brown University professor James Head, pointing to the country’s achievements in human and robotic exploration and a string of successes on the moon and Mars.

Andrew Jones, a Finland-based journalist who covers China's space program, has a similar view.

“China's long-term vision for and investment in space has paid dividends in recent years, with notable achievements, including the first-ever landing on the far side of the moon, a successful rover landing on Mars and the development of space infrastructure for communications, Earth observation and navigation and positioning.”

China, which built its own space station in less than two years, now has an independent navigation system (Beidou) and the ability to support humans in low-Earth orbit. It also launched more satellites last year than any other nation.

In the coming months Beijing plans to launch the Xuntian space telescope, which is reported to have a field of view 300 to 350 times that of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

“The Chinese have been able to achieve what they said they would do in pretty short order,” said professor Quentin Parker, director of the Laboratory for Space Research at the University of Hong Kong.

“They plan well, they execute well. They learn carefully, and they are doing an exemplary job in demonstrating how to emerge as a major spacefaring nation,” Parker said.

An ambitious agenda

But as experts point out, this might be just the beginning.

“China’s space ambitions come directly from the very top as part of President Xi Jinping's space dream,” said Kari Bingen, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).


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Earlier this year, Beijing released a White Paper outlining its plans for space science, exploration, technology and propulsion over the coming five years, while stating that the country’s space industry “serves the overall national strategy.”

The paper lays out a broad array of priorities for spaceflight, including upgrading and expanding launch vehicles, building out satellite constellations, operating the Tiangong space station and planning crewed lunar landings, as well as exploring the moon, Mars and beyond.

Independent scholar and author Namrata Goswami said that the thrust of China's space program is to accomplish resource utilization, including asteroid mining, lunar resource extraction, nuclear fusion and reusable rockets, while establishing a strategic presence on the Earth Moon Lagrange points, or positions in space where gravity and centrifugal force balance each other.

“China's space program has shifted the narrative of space from Cold War, Western-led concepts like 'space is all about prestige' to demonstrating that space is about the economic benefits it brings,” said Goswami.

Beijing has announced several ambitious plans for the coming years, including collecting near-Earth asteroid samples and conducting two lunar polar exploration missions by 2025. It also plans to launch a Mars sample-return mission, send an unmanned probe to Jupiter and land astronauts on the moon by 2030.

The country also wants to develop reusable carrier rockets by 2035 before establishing an initially robotic — and later intermittently crewed — research base on the moon by 2036 and one on Mars by 2045, the latter of which could benefit from China’s plans to build a nuclear-powered space shuttle by 2040.

“China is building a ‘Silk Road to Space’ and I have no doubt that they are capable of doing this,” said Head at Brown University.

But where does the Tiangong space station fit into these plans?

Although only about 20% the mass of the ISS, experts say the Tiangong will not only be used as a platform for space science experiments but also as a tool for soft power, prestige and potentially a means of attracting partners for space cooperation.

“The completion of the station demonstrates that China is a space power with the technical advancements, operational proficiency and resource commitment to sustain a long-term human presence in space,” said Bingen, adding that the breakthrough comes amid uncertainty about the future of the ISS.

Moreover, the Tiangong will enable China to build an entire low-Earth orbit logistical system, including cargo transfers vital for life support away from Earth.


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“Some of the most critical technologies for a space program involve the ability to dock and rendezvous autonomously, accomplish maneuvers and in-space assembly,” said Goswami, all of which China aims to continue testing and improving.

But perhaps more importantly, permanent occupancy implies that China will build on its strategic goal of dominating the space between Earth and the moon, while training and equipping people to live in space. This will offer strategic insights into space biology, space weather and the long-term effects of long stays on the human body.

Last but not least, a sustained presence in space will also allow Chinese officials to prepare for landing astronauts on the moon and compete with NASA’s Artemis program.

So why the security concerns?

Although Beijing insists that it plans to use space for peaceful purposes and scientific achievements, the emergence of an undemocratic and autocratic China as a space power is seen as a potential security risk to other countries, particularly given the dual-use nature of the space technologies being developed, the PLA’s prominence in the domestic space industry and Beijing’s lack of transparency.

Compounding these concerns, said CSIS’s Bingen, are national intelligence laws that compel civil and commercial enterprises to support intelligence-gathering efforts and China’s ruling Communist Party’s “civil-military” fusion strategy, which blurs any line between military and civilian space programs.

“While Beijing pursues these exploration programs it is also building out a vast array of ground- and space-based anti-satellite weapons, including missiles like the one tested in 2007 that created dangerous orbital debris that will remain in orbit and threaten both our space stations and other satellites for decades to come.”

These concerns were confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community in the latest threat assessment report.

“Counterspace operations will be integral to potential military campaigns by the PLA, and China has counterspace weapons capabilities intended to target U.S. and allied satellites,” it said, warning that the Chinese military is also integrating space services — such as satellite reconnaissance and communications — into its weapons and command-and-control systems to erode the U.S. military’s information advantage.