Jun 2, 2020 - Science

China outlines ambitious plan to build space station in orbit

An illustration of a Chinese flag on the moon.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

China has an ambitious new plan to build a space station in orbit by 2023.

Why it matters: The U.S. sees China as a rival in space, so any large undertaking like this one will be watched closely.

  • The space station also represents the evolution of China's space program, which made use of two smaller test stations in orbit that hosted crew before moving on to this more complex design.

Details: China plans to launch the first module of its new space station next year, with a total of 11 launches needed to complete the station by 2023, according to a report from SpaceNews.

  • The station is expected to eventually play host to crews of three astronauts aboard for six months who can perform experiments and other activities from orbit.
  • "It's quite possible that maybe even their first but probably their second or third crew for their space station will include a foreigner," Dean Cheng, a space analyst focusing on China at the Heritage Foundation, told Axios.
  • China is also planning to launch a telescope that will be able to dock to the station for maintenance, SpaceNews said.

What to watch: In mid-May, intact pieces of China's Long March 5 booster fell back to Earth, potentially putting people on the ground in Ivory Coast in danger and flouting norms among nations to safely de-orbit their spent rockets.

  • With a number of launches coming up, it remains to be seen whether China will start issuing warnings about where their rockets are coming down or find new ways to dispose of them safely.
  • It's also possible the crewed SpaceX launch could influence the burgeoning commercial space sector in China, according to Cheng.
  • "The Chinese are worried, not about Elon Musk per se, but they recognize that companies can do entrepreneurship way better than state-owned enterprises," Cheng said.
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