At 3:37 a.m. ET on Monday, China launched the last key component of its space station, the latest step in the country’s efforts to become a leading space power.
The Mengtian (“dreaming of the heavens”) lab module, onboard a carrier rocket, blasted off the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on the island of Hainan. It is expected to dock at the Tiangong (“heavenly palace”) Space Station within several hours.
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Designed to carry out microgravity and low-earth orbit experiments, Mengtian will be China’s second addition to Tiangong this year, following the July deployment of Wentian (“quest for the heavens”), a laboratory module equipped for biological research.
Completing the key structures of Tiangong is, in itself, a feat, considering its first core module was sent to low-earth orbit only in April last year. Tiangong makes China only the third country in the world apart from the U.S. and Russia to send up astronauts and build a space station.
China still has many other extraterrestrial ambitions in the pipeline. Within the next decade, it plans to build a base at the moon’s southern tip and from there deploy a telescope with 300 times the field of view of the Hubble. It also intends to collect samples from Mars, among other aims. Some of these developments are scheduled to take place earlier than similar deadlines set by NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA).
It’s this steady progress of the Chinese space program that worries U.S. politicians and senior military officials. Some believe the U.S. is falling behind in the new “space race”—echoing rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War—with the moon as the finish line once again. The U.S., in a rush to build its own lunar base, is already attempting to test rockets for roundtrip moonflights.
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Tiangong will not compete with the 16-module International Space Station (ISS), China says, having at most six modules based on earlier plans. But with the ISS retiring after 2030, unless private U.S. companies like SpaceX and Tesla replace it with their own stations, the Tiangong will be the only space station orbiting Earth. The Tiangong may have even forced the U.S.’s decision last year to delay the decommissioning of the ISS, which was originally scheduled for 2024, says Quentin Parker of the University of Hong Kong’s Laboratory for Space Research.
“Competition is good,” Parker tells TIME. “It helps you train, helps you improve performance, brings down costs and gets new developments more rapidly.”
China-U.S. competition in space
As competition grows, China and the U.S. are accusing each other of militarizing outer space. The Chinese space program’s opaque ties to the People’s Liberation Army fuels Washington’s concerns over using civilian facilities for surveillance and intelligence, even though NASA has a history of working with U.S. defense agencies. Citing security issues, the U.S. in 2011 passed a law barring China from joining the ISS and requiring FBI approval for any space information exchange with the country. Most recently, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson accused China of planning to colonize the moon, stealing tech and using the Tiangong to study how to destroy other satellites, a claim China has vehemently denied.
Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut who was in the ISS from 2004 to 2005, laments how the U.S. refuses to collaborate with China in space, when Russia, its space rival since the Cold War and a perennial security threat to Washington, can still shuttle astronauts to the ISS.
“You can’t tell me the Russians aren’t trying to spy on the U.S. and vice versa,” he tells TIME. “But we’ve had a very successful collaboration on the International Space Station because nothing we do with the ISS has any military value.” Russia, however, plans to defect from the ISS consortium by 2024.
In its January white paper, China emphasized “peaceful collaboration” with international partners in space science and governance. Still, some worry that working with China would abet its military. A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report argues that Beijing can use data collected from ground stations in South America—a key part of China’s space infrastructure—for surveillance. On the other hand, the ESA and China have been exchanging data collected from European and Chinese satellites to advance earth science research since 2004. Karl Bergquist, ESA Administrator for the International Relations Department, says the agency does not see why “it should not work” with China as the data exchanged is not for military use but for science.
“The more data our scientists have that they can work on, the better it will be for us all,” Bergquist tells TIME.
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For its part, China doesn’t want to close its space station doors—Tiangong is open to all U.N. member states. The ESA has even planned for its astronauts to board the Tiangong, though this has been stalled pending further discussion with Beijing. One of the station’s designers told state media that Tiangong is “inclusive” and designed to be adaptable for non-Chinese astronauts. And at least 1,000 scientific experiments will be conducted in the station, Nature reports, mostly involving Chinese researchers but also including projects led by researchers from 17 other countries and regions like Kenya, Russia, Mexico, Japan and Peru, some of which are struggling to support their own space initiatives.
While the U.S. is decades of operational experience ahead of the Chinese space program, China’s willingness to partner with other countries may be cementing its place as a space power today. Since 2016, China has made 46 space cooperation agreements with 19 different countries and regions.
“I don’t believe [China] wants to be confrontational,” Parker tells TIME. “I think they want people to like them; I think they want to be trusted.”
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