Three Chinese astronauts have begun a six-month mission, to work on the country’s new space station. It is China’s latest step towards making itself a leading space power for the decades ahead.
Last year, China put into orbit the first module of its Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace” space station. It plans to add more modules, such as Mengtian science lab, by the end of the year.
Next year, it will launch space telescope Xuntian. This will fly close to the space station, and dock with it for servicing and refuelling.
Tiangong will have its own power, propulsion, life support systems, and living quarters.
China is only the third country in history to have put astronauts into space and to build a space station, after the Soviet Union (and now Russia) and the U.S.
It has big ambitions for Tiangong and hopes it will replace the International Space Station (ISS), which is due to be decommissioned in 2031.Chinese astronauts are excluded from the ISS because U.S. law bans its space agency NASA from sharing data with China. China’s plans to reach the Moon and Mars
China’s ambitions do not end there. It wants to take samples from asteroids near the Earth in a few years. By 2030, it aims to have put astronauts on the Moon, and to have sent probes to collect samples from Mars and Jupiter.
What are other countries doing?
As China expands its role in space, several other countries are aiming to get to the Moon.
NASA plans to return to the Moon with astronauts from the U.S. and other countries from 2025 onward and has already rolled out its giant SLS rocket at the Kennedy Space Center.
Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, and the United Arab Emirates are also working on lunar missions.
India has launched its second major Moon mission and wants to have its own space station by 2030.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency, which is working with NASA on Moon missions, is planning a network of lunar satellites to make it easier for astronauts to communicate with Earth.
Who makes the rules for space?
- The UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says nowhere in space can be claimed by any one nation
- The UN Moon Agreement of 1979 says space should not be commercially exploited, but the U.S., China, and Russia have refused to sign
- Now, the U.S. is promoting its Artemis Accords, spelling out how nations can exploit the Moon’s minerals in a co-operative way
- Russia and China won’t sign the accords, saying the U.S. has no right to make the rules for space
What is China’s history in space?
China put its first satellite into orbit in 1970 as it went through massive disruptions caused by the Cultural Revolution.
The only other powers to have gone into space by that stage were the U.S., the Soviet Union, France, and Japan.
In the past 10 years, China has launched more than 200 rockets.
It has already sent an unmanned mission to the Moon, called Chang’e 5, to collect and return rock samples. It planted a Chinese flag on the lunar surface – which was deliberately bigger than previous U.S. flags.
With the launch of Shenzhou 14, China has now put 14 astronauts into space, compared with 340 by the U.S. and more than 130 by the Soviet Union (now Russia).
But there have been setbacks. In 2021, part of a Chinese rocket tumbled out of orbit and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and two launches failed in 2020.
Who is paying for China’s space program?
Chinese state media Xinhua said at least 300,000 people have worked on China’s space projects – almost 18 times as many as NASA’s current workforce.
The Chinese National Space Administration was set up in 2003 with an initial annual budget of two billion yuan (US$300 million).
However, in 2016, China opened its space industry to private companies, and these are now investing more than 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) a year, according to Chinese media.
Why is China going into space?China is keen to develop its satellite technology, for telecommunications, air-traffic management, weather forecasting, and more. But many of its satellites also have military purposes. They can help it spy on rival powers, and guide long-range missiles.Lucinda King, space project manager at Portsmouth University, says China is not just focusing on high-profile space missions: “They are prolific in all aspects of space. They have the political motivation and the resources to fund their planned programs.”
China’s Moon missions are partly motivated by the opportunities to extract rare earth metals from its surface.
However, professor Sa’id Mosteshar, director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law at the University of London, says it probably would not pay for China to send repeated mining missions to the Moon.
Instead, he says, China’s space program is driven more by a desire to impress the rest of the world. “It’s a projection of power and a demonstration of technological advancement.”