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China orbits future ISS rival

RIA Novosti

21:36 30/09/2011 RIA Novosti military commentator Konstantin Bogdanov - China has successfully launched the Tiangong-1, a prototype laboratory for an orbiting space station. This is the next step in Beijing's conquest of space and to catch up with the International Space Station in the not too distant future.

Long road to blast-off

The Chinese postponed the launch for a year. The carrier rocket with the orbiting laboratory module was first rolled out in the spring of 2010. The launch of Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace-1) was scheduled for the beginning of 2011.

But in January, the launch was pushed back to the second half of 2011. Preparations for the latest launch attempt began in August: it was first reported that Tiangong-1 would be orbited before September but the date was finally set for September 29, 2011.

Tiangong-1's four objectives:

- To practice approach and docking maneuvers with the unmanned Shenzhou-8 spacecraft already in orbit (scheduled for late November). Together they will form the first prototype for a Chinese orbiting station.

- To check the operation of a common control system, with Tiangong-1 playing the leading role.

- To test the life-support system shared by the two spacecraft.

- To carry out a series of tests for a future manned station.

Once the Shenzhou-8 program is complete, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 will be sent to the station. They will be manned spaceships. The construction and launch of Tiangong-1 and the three related space missions will cost China 15 billion yuan ($2.35 billion).

The Shenzhou-10 expedition will also include the first female taikonaut: 33-year-old Wang Yaping, a military transport pilot from the People's Liberation Army of China, who will be sent into orbit in 2013.

Salyut with Chinese specifics

China is rapidly catching up with Russia and the United States. Rather than leapfrog these two countries, China has decided to work, quickly and consistently, through every step of the planning and construction process for orbiting facilities as covered by the Americans and Russians before it. It is determined to do this on its own, without sharing common programs, but drawing on others' experience.

In their day, the two superpowers, in taking a breather from their close moon race, took up orbiting station projects for research purposes. They made skilful use of military ideas in that field.

The Soviet Union developed a series of Salyut stations and, following that, produced their ultimate heir - the Mir orbiting station. The United States took advantage of its Apollo moon program and developed Skylab, a Salyut counterpart.

But the U.S. space orbiting program turned out to be a damp squib: the Americans, after making much of it in 1973, left Skylab in orbit, abandoning it, and in July 1979 let it burn up in the atmosphere. In the 1990s, the two programs - the Russian and the American - merged with the International Space Station program.

A look at Tiangong-1 reveals certain similarities with Soviet Soyuz and Salyut spacecraft. The developers do not deny this.

But Tiangong-1 is smaller than a Salyut - it weighs a mere 8.5 metric tons, compared with the Soviet 18-19 ton payload - due to China's lack of a carrier rocket able to lift a heavier payload into orbit.

The Chinese, like their Soviet counterparts, are first planning to put together an orbiting station from docked pairs: Tiangong-1 and a standard manned ship of the Shenzhou type. But Chinese engineers are not going to take their time.

Currently, Chinese spacecraft designers are using technology from the late 1960s - what the United States and the Soviet Union had at the time. But, judging from displayed concepts, the Shenzhou and Tiangong tandems will give place to more sophisticated designs within several years' time, designs comparable to the Soviet Mir and conceptually close to the ISS.

Beijing's long shot plans

The emergence of a Chinese space outpost in the future looks particularly promising when compared with the rather murky outlook for the International Space Station.

The current residents of the common space station (Americans, Russians, Europeans and Japanese) have no real plan for their joint project after the next ten years. Or, to put it another way, who will run and support this somewhat troublesome station after awhile?

China's attitude toward the ISS project is two-sided. In the early 1990s, China sought admission to the program, but the U.S. came out against it. Now China has lost its interest in the ISS because it has its own irons in the fire.

With the fate of the ISS uncertain after 2020, and a good deal depending on the United States, we may witness a far from trivial event in ten or so years. A large space station will as before be orbiting the earth. Only this time it will be China's Heavenly Palace.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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