China yesterday (September 17, 2016) successfully launched a spacecraft Shenzhou-11 carrying two astronauts from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre near the Gobi Desert in northwest China. The spacecraft will dock with orbiting space laboratory Tiangong-2 in two days and the astronauts will stay in the lab for 30 days. During the stay astronauts will conduct aerospace medical experiments, space science experiments and in-orbit maintenance schedules. The Shenzhou-11 spaceship will return to Earth within a day after docking the two astronauts on Tiangong-2 space lab.
The Tiangong-2 laboratory is in orbit 393 kilometres above Earth and has two cabins; a living cum experimental chamber and second one for keeping stores/ supplies. China is about to launch one of the main space station modules in 2018 called the Tianhe-1. The module will be carried to space by the most powerful Chinese rocket Long March 5. China has plans to establish a permanent manned space station by 2022. This new Chinese Space Station will have several docking ports for spacecraft. The space station will carry an atomic clock which Xinhua news agency said will only lose one second every 30 million years. This is expected to make future mobile navigation more accurate.
As of now, International Space Station (ISS) is the only habitable space station and the largest structure humans have ever put into space. It has a crew capacity of six and is positioned about 400 kms above Earth. The International Space Station is the product of 15 different countries and space agencies representing the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. China was kept away from this international program fearing its military exploitation. After decommissioning of US Space Shuttle, NASA is dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fly Americans in space. As of now, America has approved funding to run ISS till 2024.
China’s space program has made commendable progress during the last few years. In August, 2016 China also launched the world’s first quantum satellite, aimed at achieving “hack-proof” communications between space and ground control. China has demonstrated its space capabilities at par with Russia and the United States. All these demonstrations of its prowess in ‘space’ are a symbol of its growing global stature.The proposed Chinese space station would weigh approximately 60 tonnes. In contrast, the ISS weighs 419 tonnes. Yet, China’s achievement is laudable since it is doing it all alone, while the ISS has been developed and maintained by the rich and technologically advanced group of nations. Since, China is the sole operator of its Space Station; it in all likelihood will have larger military connotations and could be a step towards weaponisation of space.
In case the life of ISS is not extended, than after 2024, China’s space station would probably be the only manned space station. This would provide China an opportunity to enhance its dominance in space and it could be a vital tool for “Space diplomacy”.
These small steps will pave way for China’s continued presence in space and provide him base for exploration of deep space and related technologies. This will also facilitate China in its manned mission to Moon and Mars; and also in establishing permanent lunar base in future. In contrast India is way away from its first manned mission to space; leave aside putting a Space Station. India is in the process of testing various technologies as of now and would take probably another ten years to realise its dreams. The technological prowess and presence in “space” certainly provides strategic edge to China in the region; and it will further strengthen its global stature.