On the way to omnipotence

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At first sight it is a science project. But when the Chinese soon launch their first space station, Tiangong-3, it will be about more: national pride, prestige and a very special form of diplomacy.

If there were an award for the most beautiful names in spacecraft and rockets, it would no doubt go to China. While the West is pragmatic (“International Space Station”, ISS for short) or Greek (“Apollo”, “Ariane”, “Artemis”), everything sounds much more poetic with the Chinese. The jade bunny »Yutu« sneaks over the moon. The “Shenzou” ship of gods brings people into space. And there the heavenly palace »Tiangong« circles the earth. Soon in its third version.

At the end of April – supposedly on the 29th of the month – it could be time. Then China wants to launch Tiangong-3: the People’s Republic’s first large space station. The government prefers to speak of the China Space Station (CSS), the Chinese space station. That doesn’t sound nearly as poetic, but more adult, weightier, more international. After all, and neither the Jade Bunny nor the Sky Palace can hide that, China’s goals in space are tough. Beijing is about national pride, prestige and power in space.

Tiangong-3 is a little sister of Mir

The module that is supposed to consolidate this power is 22 tons and around 18 meters long. It’s called Tianhe (“heavenly harmony”) and has been waiting for its launch in the southern Chinese cosmodrome of Wenchang for months. In mid-February, the rocket needed for this was finally delivered. China is traditionally silent about when exactly it should start. Based on experience with previous launch campaigns, however, it could be the middle or the end of April, estimates Andrew Jones, an expert on Chinese space travel, in the specialist magazine “SpaceNews”.

After all: China’s state media have made some pictures of the Tianhe module, which is supposed to form the core of the space station, public in recent months and years – despite all the secrecy. The photos show an elongated cylinder, wrapped in a white protective cloth, with five circular openings at the ends. Spacecraft can dock there, other modules can be mounted, and the astronauts can exit their station through an airlock. The life support systems that purify the air, recycle water, provide electricity – and thus make life in the aluminum tube possible in the first place – are also striking.

We have borrowed many things or taken over from others

The whole thing is very reminiscent of Russia’s former Mir space station or the central Zvezda module of the ISS that emerged from the Mir concept. And in fact, China’s astronauts have worked closely with Russia in the past: They bought parts of their space technology from their neighbors, often struggling, and even had their first astronauts trained in the star city near Moscow. “We borrowed many things or took over from others,” said Chief Engineer Zhang Bainan during one of his rare appearances on state television. But China is now trying more and more to do things that it had not tackled before. “The risk is increasing,” Zhang said with unprecedented frankness. “That is why we advocate tolerating failure as well.

Tiangong-3 | In order to assemble the Chinese space station, the planners have to shoot a series of modules into space and connect them there.

Like in July 2017, when China’s new heavy-lift missile of the Langer Marsch 5 type, which had made its first flight without any problems in the previous year, did not reach the planned orbit. One engine had gone on strike. Because this type of rocket is required to launch the heavyweight Tianhe module, the construction of the space station was also delayed. Only another successful test of the almost 54 meter long Langer Marsch 5B (LM-5B) in May 2020 paved the way for the upcoming start of Tianhe.

It won’t be the missile’s only flight. Two further modules, each weighing a good 20 tons, also have to be brought to a height of around 370 kilometers with an LM-5B. There they are to be screwed to Tianhe, the core unit, and together form the Chinese space station. The two modules are called Wentian (“Search for Heaven”) and Mengtian (“Dream of Heaven”) and are both intended to serve research. Inside there are meter-high laboratory cabinets with which the astronauts can start experiments in the fields of physics, materials research and the life sciences.

On board: a space telescope

A space telescope is also part of the station’s basic equipment. It has a very poetic name, even by Chinese standards: Xiantian, “That Reaches into the Sky”. With a similar resolution as the legendary Hubble telescope, but a 300 times larger field of view, it should explore the sky. The special feature: Xiantian flies close to the station and can therefore be captured and docked if repairs are necessary.

Despite these ambitious plans, the development of CSS should be completed by 2022. “We will be very busy,” said chief designer Zhou Jianping on state television. Immediately after take-off, a space freighter is supposed to drop by Tianhe, dock and deliver fuel and supplies. Then, probably as early as the summer, a Shenzhou capsule, the “ship of the gods”, will bring the first astronauts to the station. The teams of three should live and work on board for three to six months; there is even space for six people during the crew change. The People’s Republic has chosen a new astronaut and 17 new astronauts for the flights. For the first time, it will also include researchers and not just military pilots, as in previous selection rounds.

The astronauts face a lot: eleven launches – some with and some without a crew – will be necessary before the station is screwed together. It will then have a mass of 60 to 70 tons: about one-sixth of the ISS and half of the long-burned up Mir. The manageable size saves money and is also easier to use. But it also offers less redundancy and storage space for spare parts in orbit. Nevertheless, the CSS should hold out for at least 10, or even better, 15 years.

After all, China has been working towards commissioning for a long time. The first plans for CSS go back to 1992, when the Communist Party presented a three-stage concept. The People’s Republic completed the first stage, the transport of people into space, in October 2003. At that time, Yang Liwei, the first Chinese man, circumnavigated the earth 14 times. Level two, experience in the operation of space stations, docking and field operations, mastered Tiangong-1 and -2. Between 2011 and 2019, the two small room laboratories circled the earth; they were visited by eight astronauts.

The space variant of the »Chinese dream

So now stage three, the Chinese space station. Exactly as anticipated, albeit a few years late. If China also masters this hurdle, it would be a huge success in a space program that is already not poor in successes. And it would be exactly what the government hoped for: “China’s rise as a space power should show the people that the Communist Party is the best organization to lead the country and to give it its rightful place in the world.” writes political scientist Kevin Pollpeter in an analysis for the US Congress.

For President Xi Jinping, it is about nothing less than the space variant of the “Chinese dream”: This is what Xi calls his government program. It is supposed to make China proud and strong. All over. Successful space travelers are the perfect ambassadors. That is why China is investing around a third of its space budget, which according to Euroconsult calculations was most recently 4.8 billion euros, in astronautical space travel – a higher proportion than any other country.

But there is more to it than just national pride. “The Chinese government sees astronautical space travel as a means to gain international prestige,” writes the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in an analysis of the Chinese space program. Therefore, the People’s Republic had long tried to be allowed to participate in the International Space Station ISS, which the USA has always refused. Instead, it is now having its own space station, and it is also set to become an international one: as early as 2018, China invited all other states through the United Nations to join CSS. The partners should fly there, do research there, and possibly even contribute their own modules.

The invitation does not come without ulterior motives. China is about influence, power and a very special orbital diplomacy: Just as the country is building railways in Africa as part of its Belt and Road initiative or delivering corona vaccines to Nepal, Zimbabwe or Hungary, China could one day also expand astronauts Invite less developed countries to fly together to CSS. That creates dependencies.

And they don’t have to end in earth orbit: Experiences from astronautical space travel, such as our own space station, should “create the basis for exploring and developing lunar space,” says the government’s official white paper on China’s space travel activities. Although President Xi has still not made the landing of the Chinese on the moon an official target, preparations are underway. In 2020 a new space capsule successfully completed its maiden flight, still without people on board. It should offer space for six to seven astronauts and could one day reach the moon, maybe even Mars. In February 2021, China’s space managers also approved the construction of a new heavy-lift rocket. The colossus, christened Langer Marsch 9, is supposed to heave up to 140 tons into earth orbit – as much as the US moon rocket Saturn V once did.

There is even no lack of plans for a base at the south pole of the moon. Initially, robots will work there, and possibly humans from 2030. With this project, too, the People’s Republic hopes to expand its influence and create dependencies: it has already found its first partner. Russia, which recently rejected the American Artemis plans, which also provide for a joint exploration of the moon, as “too US-centered”, wants to participate. Last week it signed a letter of intent: Together with China, they want to build the International Scientific Lunar Station (ISLS). A more pragmatic than poetic name – but maybe Beijing can come up with something better.

This article was published originally by spektrum.de

Article source: spektrum.de

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  1. May 4, 2021

    […] On the way to omnipotence […]

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