China moving closer to developing space station

This year, 2012, has seen China make critical progress towards attaining their objective of establishing a space station in orbit by the year 2020. The manual docking of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft has been a significant achievement in realising that goal. China has come a long way since the dawn of the Space Age and the manned space docking of Shenzhou-9 with the orbiting TianGong-1 space lab is a noteworthy display of their growing capabilities. It is a major step in marking a greater Chinese presence in space, considering that docking missions are essential in establishing a space station. Previously, in November 2011, China had successfully conducted an unmanned space docking mission with the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft.

On June 16, 2012, China launched the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft on their first manual docking mission from a launch centre in the Gobi Desert. Two days later, the spacecraft was able to automatically dock with the orbiting TianGong-1 space lab module. On June 24, three astronauts, including China’s first female taikonaut, Liu Yang, re-entered the spacecraft, parted with the module and retreated to a berth point 400m away from TianGong-1 to carry out the manual docking procedure. The success of both automated docking and manual docking are essential as they are meant to be a back-up for each other. The manual docking was completed in 7 minutes, a full 3 minutes faster than the automated docking.

Manual docking is a highly sophisticated manoeuvre which requires the astronauts to connect two orbiting crafts travelling at a speed of 7.8 kilometres per second seamlessly. According to Chinese officials, the success of the manned docking mission was due to the congruence of three key factors. Firstly, Liu Wang, the captain of the ship, was able to master the docking technology along with his psychological status being sound. Secondly, the three taikonauts were able to work closely together. And lastly, the domestically made docking technology functioned properly.

China is only the third country after the United States and Russia to achieve space docking technology. The technologies used to achieve these capabilities have largely been developed indigenously, with a little assistance from outside to boost the process. The Shenzhou spacecraft is a highly improved – more powerful and versatile – version of the Russian Soyuz. Also, even though the TianGong-1 module is based on the Soviet Salyut Space Station, it does not resemble it much.

The Chinese have gained a significant grasp of manned space travel, space walk, space rendezvous and docking technology. This is critical in their objective of building a space station – the capabilities being critical in transferring humans and cargo to an orbiter in space. China’s plan to develop a space station, called Project 921, was approved in 1992 and they plan to establish it in orbit by the year 2020. Incidentally, it is the same year that the International Space Station is scheduled to retire.

However, China’s plan of assembling a space station in orbit is largely dependent on developing a suitable carrier rocket. The current capacity of its carrier rockets is insufficient for the task. Presently, China can only send 10 metric tonnes of payloads to the low-Earth orbit and only 5 metric tonnes to geosynchronous orbit. This is significantly less when compared to the 25 metric tonnes of payloads that the US and Russia are capable of putting in low-Earth orbit. Recognising this shortcoming, the Chinese scientists are developing the Long March-5 rocket (CZ-5). It is estimated that the CZ-5 will have the capability to carry a maximum payload of 25 metric tonnes.

With the United States terminating their space shuttle programme, the Russians had gained a monopoly on manned space programmes but the Chinese are catching up with these space powers fast. The last few years have seen the US’ space activities decreasing while the Chinese, on the other hand, have been on an ascent. The Space Competitiveness Index prepared by Futron Corporation noted that China matched US’ number of launches in the year 2010.

There is a concern among the United States’ defence officials regarding China’s space programme being run by the People’s Liberation Army. There is worry concerning the potential of the Chinese space programme contributing to China’s growing military capability. China having a space station in orbit will double-up as a strategic outpost in space. Their growing activities in space are a reflection of China’s rapid militarization on ground, sea and air. China’s growing presence in space, at a time when the United States has been compelled to shut down their shuttle programme, definitely has serious military implications for the future.

While one could consider the establishment of a space station by China as a potential for collaboration, it would be more prudent of India to consider the military implications of such a move. A manned space station provides a greater thrust to PLA’s combative capability, especially when the PLA is acquiring technologies that allow them to observe targets from space at real time. Concerns are further exacerbated with China developing laser devices that can be used as an anti-satellite device as well as a substitute for missiles (Radhakrishna Rao, 2011). India’s Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, has expressed concern over the Chinese process of refining their space war techniques. Recognising this threat, V.K. Saraswat, Chief of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has already hinted at India’s need for developing devices and satellites to counter-balance the threat that India faces from its larger neighbour.

(Arvind K John is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation)

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