August 17, 2011

Chinese Flexing Space Muscle

The Chinese are preparing their next foray into space. They have built a small 8.5-ton space lab to practice at least three docking missions in its two year lifetime, reports USA Today.

The Tiangong I module is not part of China's planned space station, but is only a test bed to practice the technologies needed for its future space program. Their first mission is planned as an unmanned mission that will dock to the space lab. The second mission may be manned, but the third mission is planned to me a manned mission.

At 8.5 tons the Tiangong I module is a featherweight. In comparison NASA's Skylab weighed in at around 80-tons and Russia's Mir weighed 22-tons. The International Space Station weighs in at a hefty 450-tons.

After the Tiangong I falls to Earth, two more labs are planned to be launched, the Tiangong 2 and Tiangong 3. Chinese Shengzou space capsules would dock with these labs to transfer crew to them.

All of these missions are warm-ups for China's planned 60-ton space station scheduled to be launched around 2020. An upcoming report in the Space Policy Journal, written by former NASA official Scott Pace of George Washington University, notes that this station is planned to go into orbit around the same time that the ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned.

It is thought that China is going into space in order to have a political presence there. "In some ways, this will underscore the extent to which China is ahead of India and Japan. This will be layered atop ongoing tensions among them: Beijing-Tokyo (the Senkakus/Diaoyutai incident of last year) and Beijing-New Delhi ongoing tensions about border demarcations," says Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, according to USA Today.

Scott Pace concludes that, "The most important implication for the USA from Chinese civil space capabilities is not that the Chinese will be in space, but that the USA may not be. The rules of international relations in new domains are created by those who show up and not by those who stay home."