What are the Chinese planning in space?

China is not involved in the international space station ISS, also because the USA prohibits its space agency Nasa from working with China. The country is now pushing ahead with its own space projects. The Chinese space station Tiangong (in English: “Heaven’s Palace”) began regular operations earlier this year, and three new astronauts were flown there on Tuesday. When the international space station ISS ceases operations by 2031 at the latest, the Tiangong will be the only space station for the time being. What kind of research is being conducted there and are other states allowed to use Tiangong? The most important questions and answers on the topic.

What does the Chinese space station look like?

With a diameter of 39 meters, the Chinese space station is about four times smaller than the International Space Station ISS. It consists of the core module Tianhe, (in German: heavenly harmony) which offers space for up to six people, the two laboratory capsules Wentian (“Heavenly Questioning”) and Mengtian (“Heavenly Dream”) and wings with solar panels. An extension with the Xuntian space telescope is also planned. It will be installed near the station in space and will dock there regularly for refueling and maintenance work.

The Tiangong space station orbits the earth at an altitude of about 340 to 420 km. It can be seen with the naked eye: it is best when it is night on earth, but the station is illuminated by the sun. This is usually the case in the early morning hours or after sunset. On the website www.astroviewer.net can be used to determine from any location on Earth when the Tiangong and the ISS will next be clearly visible from Earth.

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Why is the space station called “Heaven’s Palace”?

During the Cold War, the naming of Chinese space projects was even more political. A Chinese launch vehicle series was named after the communist story of the “long march” (“long march”). Recently there has been a tendency towards more poetic names. China’s moon missions are named after Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon.

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Before naming the space station, Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said they were looking for a “lively, hopeful and resonant name.” In addition, the population should be involved in finding a name, since the project should promote national prestige and the “feeling of national pride and cohesion”. In fact, every Chinese man and woman was invited to submit ideas. From the 152,640 name suggestions submitted, 30 were initially selected, from which 20 million Chinese voted online for the top 10. From these, a commission finally chose the name Tiangong (“Heaven’s Palace”), the name was approved by the Chinese State Council and announced by the Bureau of Human Spaceflight in October 2011.

What kind of research is done on the station?

The research carried out on Tiangong is similar to that which is also devoted to the ISS. This is how experiments are carried out in weightlessness. For example, they test how certain substances behave in space in order to be able to develop new materials for space travel. The effect of weightlessness on humans is also part of Chinese space exploration. China also wants to use the space telescope to gain new information about distant galaxies and the history of the origins of the universe.

Research in the far reaches of space: This video still, taken at the Beijing Space Operations Center, shows Chinese astronaut Liu Boming emerging from the core module of the space station in July 2021 "tian gong" gets out.

Exploring the far reaches of space: This video still, taken at the Beijing Space Operations Center, shows Chinese astronaut Liu Boming emerging from the core module of the Tiangong space station in July 2021.

In addition, experiments are being carried out with seeds in space. Plants are grown from rice seeds on Tiangong. The aim is to investigate how weightlessness affects the flowering period. China has been conducting seed experiments in space since the 1980s. On the one hand, the aim is to generate mutations in order to then be able to grow genetically modified rice on earth and achieve better harvest results. China has been trying for some time to breed a special space rice with optimized properties. Seedlings that were grown in the unmanned lunar probe Chang’e 5 in 2020 have already been used for this purpose. The cultivation of crops in space could also be used in the future to feed astronauts and to supply the moon station planned by China.

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Can Tiangong only be used by China?

The Tiangong space station is operated by the Chinese space agency China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). However, it should also be possible to use it for international research projects in the future. China has already announced plans to expand the station. In the future, they also want to invite astronauts from other space agencies and also make space tourism on Tiangong possible.

What else is China planning in space?

Overall, Tiangong is considered an important building block in China’s space program because it can provide insights for future missions to the moon and Mars, which China is also planning. China has announced that it wants to send a manned mission to the moon by 2030. Like the Reuters news agency reported with reference to Chinese media, China also wants to start building a lunar station in five years. A specially designed robot is to produce building blocks from the moon and earth. In any case, China is planning a number of lunar missions in the coming years, which are intended, among other things, to better explore the moon before a manned station is built. As part of the Chinese missions, it had already been possible for the first time to land a probe on the “dark”, far side of the moon.

Is there a new race in space?

If China implements its plans in a timely manner, it could preempt the United States. NASA also wants to send people to the moon again soon. It was originally planned for the end of 2024, three men and one woman with one of the Artemis missions to fly to the moon. A manned moon mission has now been postponed to 2025 at the earliest. And NASA is also planning a manned lunar station: the “Artemis Base Camp”, in which astronauts should be able to stay for up to a month. A test of Elon Musk’s company SpaceX’s Starship rocket system, which NASA would like to use for flights to the moon, had failed in April.

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In any case, it is still unclear whether America or China will succeed in the next manned moon landing. In any case, it would be the first time since 1972 that humans have set foot on the moon. Nasa boss Bill Nelson had last said in an interview, one is currently in a “race in space”. He accused China of wanting to establish supremacy on the moon. Care must be taken that China does not claim a spot on the moon “under the guise of scientific research” and then try to keep other countries off, Nelson said earlier this year. Nelson also warned that China could use the moon to disrupt other countries’ satellites and communications technology. A representative of the Chinese Embassy in Washington had denied the allegations. China strives for a peaceful use of space technology and a common future of mankind in space.

Most recently, during the Cold War, there was talk of a race in space. At that time, the USA had managed to successfully fly a manned mission to the moon in front of Russia. It is possible that one day China and America will compete on the moon for the use of raw materials or suitable landing sites for missions.

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