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Space for Collaboration

Will China’s space station, once construction is complete later this year, be a big step not only for human exploration of the universe but also a new space for international cooperation?

By Wan Shuyan Updated Jul.1

Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang (center), Wang Yaping (right) and Ye Guangfu give their second talk to students from the Chinese Space Station, March 23

After a 183-day mission on board the Chinese Space Station (CSS) to test and verify core competencies of the station, three Chinese astronauts (also known as taikonauts), Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping and Ye Guangfu returned to Earth on April 16, 2022. Six spacecraft will be launched from May to October to complete in-orbit construction of the space station, according to a plan announced by the China Manned Space Agency. The first, Tianzhou-4 cargo spacecraft, was launched on May 10.  

Peaceful exploration and utilization of the universe and space resources have been a shared endeavor for humanity. Can they work together to realize this dream? NewsChina spoke with Yang Yuguang, vice chair of the Space Transportation Committee of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), and Giuseppe Reibaldi, president of the Moon Village Association (MVA), a Vienna-based NGO promoting international cooperation on moon exploration. 

NewsChina: How do you rate the three Chinese astronauts’ performance in space? 

Giuseppe Reibaldi: The astronauts’ performance has been outstanding, taking advantage of the state-of-the-art Chinese Space Station (CSS) modules. China’s technology development is moving faster than in the West, since they have long-term plans that allow them to put in place all the required actions to achieve a specific goal.  

The CSS is a state-of-the-art space station that has considered the experience of the International Space Station (ISS). We can see this from the time required to complete the station: For the ISS, it took tens of flights and more than 10 years; for the CSS, few flights and two to three years. 

Of course, the size and complexity are different, but a compact space station is more economical and more effective than a larger one like the ISS. The ISS was designed in the 1990s, the CSS about 20 years later. 

Yang Yuguang: The successful completion of the three astronauts’ mission marks the successful conclusion to a phase of verification for key technologies of the CSS. The core task was to verify a long-duration stay in orbit, and whether they could work in as good shape as normal. During the Shenzhou-11 mission [in 2016], Chinese astronauts stayed in orbit for 33 days, while the Shenzhou-12 mission [in 2021] lasted three months. Now it’s six months for the Shenzhou-13 mission. Six months will be the normal mission length once the space station goes into operation. The three astronauts exercised in the space station and returned to Earth in good shape, full of energy. 

Second, the mission validated the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), a key technology essential to sustaining astronauts in space. Since astronauts stay in the space station for long periods of time, it is expensive to transport resupplies. The regenerative ECLSS makes resources renewable. Take water recycling, for example. By purifying sweat and urine into drinkable water, it can significantly reduce cargo spacecraft flights, and leave more room to transport experiment payloads.  

In addition, the mission validated the latest crew transportation technology. It was the first time a Chinese manned spacecraft used a fast return mode, taking just over nine hours for the entire journey, compared with the one-day time span of the past. Behind the acceleration in speed is a set of sophisticated technologies and operations. 

It also validated many core technologies. Shenzhou-13 completed fully autonomous radial rendezvous and docked with the Tianhe core module. For the first time, the CSS successfully re-positioned a cargo ship with its robotic arm. The mission also featured the first remote controlled manual docking conducted by Chinese astronauts, which completed rendezvous and docking between the space station and the Tianzhou-2 cargo spaceship. The Shenzhou-13 crew completed two extravehicular activities. Wang Yaping became the first Chinese woman to do a spacewalk. The Shenzhou-12 and Shenzhou-13 crews conducted four extravehicular activities with two astronauts each time, which fully validated the second generation of China’s extravehicular space suits. 

The three astronauts also acted as “space teachers,” giving two wonderful lectures to school students on Earth, as well as a space classroom session for students in the US. With huge potential for space cooperation between China and the US, the move will encourage more young people to join hands and explore the universe. 

NC: The CSS has opened to the world since the very beginning of its construction, selecting nine experiments from 17 countries. What will international cooperation contribute to humanity’s space exploration?  

GR: Space exploration is hard, and international cooperation is the only realistic way to move forward in a sustainable manner. China has opened its space station to international cooperation since the beginning, and this is very positive. Many countries, as well as the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, are taking part in the CSS with their experiments. Some countries involved are space developing countries, and their participation is important for capacity building reasons.  

The contribution of this cooperation is to offer access to the low gravity environment of the CSS to scientists from all over the world to better understand physical and biological phenomena, as this can improve life on Earth. International cooperation should bring better understanding between countries for a peaceful life on Earth. 

YY: In the future, the CSS will serve as a platform for scientific and technological cooperation that opens to the international community and benefits humanity. The CSS was equipped with international standard interfaces, which allow countries to conduct scientific experiments. The first nine international science experiments that have been selected are just the beginning; more and deeper international cooperation will be carried out on the CSS. 

NC: Exploring the vast universe and peacefully using space resources are the common cause and dream for humanity, which transcend nationality, region and race. How should countries work together to achieve this? 

GR: Cooperation between countries is increasing, since access to space technologies is becoming available to more countries than ever because of reduced costs. Trust to cooperate will become more important. For example, let’s take the exploration and utilization of the moon. The Moon Village concept allows all countries of the world to take part in this extraordinary endeavor for humanity with their own programs, as long as they are open to cooperation. This is the reason we need to develop, within the UN system, lunar coordination mechanisms that will allow countries from all over the world to have a common level playing field on many topics like information sharing, space resources, space debris [and] inter-operability. The European Space Agency has several cooperation [projects] with the China National Space Agency in the scientific field, and some European astronauts have completed some preliminary training in China, with the goal of a future flight of European astronauts onboard the CSS. The future of cooperation in space will depend on the political landscape, but I hope that this will improve. 

YY: Space exploration cannot go ahead without international cooperation. International cooperation can reduce costs and the threshold for decision-making and promote development of national space technology, which will benefit all of humanity. International cooperation in space will only increase in the future, with a deeper level and a more extensive scope.  

China’s space sector has long taken part in international cooperation, with the launch of the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite 01 in the late 20th century. Chinese spacecraft Chang’e-4 carried scientific payloads [to the moon in 2019] from Germany, Sweden, Netherlands and Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, China has longstanding cooperative relationships with Europe and Russia. Chinese astronauts have trained in Moscow before, while China and Europe have also had astronaut training exchanges. China also jointly launched the Zhangheng-1 experimental seismo-electromagnetic satellite in cooperation with Italy, as well as an oceanographic satellite in collaboration with France. 

China’s manned space sector can carry four levels of international cooperation. The first is joint experiments, which are currently the most frequently seen form of cooperation. An example is the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, which carried a device for China and Germany’s joint life-science experiments; second is visits by foreign astronauts; third is the visit of a foreign spacecraft to the CSS and the fourth is docking foreign modules to be part of the CSS. The Tiangong Space Station is extendable, so more modules can dock, and it can extend beyond the space station’s current T-shaped structure. 

NC: As the Russia-Ukraine conflict fuels tensions between the US and Russia, will ISS operations extend to 2030? What role will the ISS and the CSS play in the future? 

GR: The ISS and CSS could cooperate, in the short term, by conducting parallel scientific experiments to gather more data. The main issue with microgravity research is low statistics results. Running parallel experiments on the same topic would increase statistics and provide more reliable results. 

The possibility to exchange crew between the two stations is there, even if it’s complex because of different orbits. The main obstacle is political will. I hope that before the ISS is decommissioned by 2030, there may be the possibility of a crew exchange. After 2030, there will be private space stations and the possibility of exchanging astronauts for safety reasons needs to be addressed as soon as possible, just as for ships at sea. 

YY: The US and Russia previously tried to extend the life of the ISS until 2030. But as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, the US and Russia have hinted at a possible “separation” at the ISS. But such a move is practically difficult: Though the ISS was built by 16 countries, the US and Russia hosted the most modules. Russia’s modules are well-equipped and can remain operational after separation. But as the US modules rely on Russia’s propulsion system, if such a situation happens, the US needs propulsion capability soon to avoid deorbiting. 

Even after the retirement of the ISS, others will emerge. In the US and other leading spacefaring countries, commercial space is experiencing rapid development, with mature technology in low-Earth orbit space stations. Commercial space companies, such as Nanoracks and Axiom, are able to create commercial space stations for space tourism. 

NC: What can be done to explore a deep and extensive model for international space cooperation? 

GR: Space travel has been a dream for humanity since the dawn of humankind. By looking to the stars, there is an opportunity to tap the skills of many people around the world. But they need to know that space exploration is happening now and everyone can take part. Space agencies and non-governmental organizations around the world have a moral obligation to implement important outreach activities. 

As for the high-level cooperation model, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every project will have a specific way to cooperate, but in this the UN is and will be central to involving as many countries as possible. 

YY: At present, the major leading countries in space exploration have established a relatively mature mechanism for cooperation and consultation, including bilateral and multilateral exchange and cooperation mechanisms. The road to international cooperation will be wider in the future. As for countries that are less involved in space exploration or without a complete space industry, how can they take part in global cooperation?  

These countries can launch spacecraft with countries leading the world’s space exploration and participate in space science experiments as well. In this way, they could also benefit from space exploration, which pushes forward the effort to build a community of a shared future for humankind in outer space exploration. 

Countries around the world, especially leaders on space exploration, should ward off political interference, and strengthen communication and understanding. In this way, they can consolidate mutual trust, which is the foundation of cooperation. Countries should strengthen bilateral and multilateral exchange mechanisms, organize more international conferences for astronautical exchanges and foster more cooperation in the commercial space sector.

Giuseppe Reibaldi, president of the Moon Village Association (MVA), takes a photo with Yang Yuguang (right), vice chair of the Space Transportation Committee of the International Astronautic Federation (IAF) and research fellow of the No. 2 Institute of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Company, for the MVA’s accession to the IAF in 2018