China’s Space Station, Tiangong, to Expand to Six Modules, Offering an Alternative to the ISS for Near-Earth Missions
China has announced plans to expand its space station, Tiangong, from three modules to six in the coming years. This expansion aims to provide astronauts from other nations with an alternative platform for near-Earth missions as the International Space Station (ISS) nears the end of its lifespan.
The operational lifetime of Tiangong will be longer than previously announced, expected to last more than 15 years. Since late 2022, Tiangong has been fully operational, accommodating a maximum of three astronauts at an orbital altitude of up to 450 kilometers (280 miles).
Once expanded, Tiangong will have a mass of 180 metric tons, which is still only 40% of the mass of the ISS. This significant difference highlights China’s ambition to establish itself as a major player in space exploration.
The ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned after 2030, coinciding with China’s plans to become a “major space power.” This puts China in a unique position to fill the void left by the ISS, further establishing its dominance in the space domain.
However, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced that it will not be participating in Tiangong due to budgetary and “political” reasons. This decision has effectively shelved the ESA’s plan for a visit by European astronauts to Tiangong.
Despite setbacks in space diplomacy, Tiangong has become a symbol of China’s growing influence and competition with the United States in the space domain. China is currently prohibited by US law from collaborating with NASA or the ISS, further emphasizing this rivalry.
Meanwhile, Russia, which is involved in the ISS project, is also making plans for its own space station. Russian space agency, Roscosmos, envisions a station with six modules capable of accommodating up to four cosmonauts. Additionally, Russia has proposed that BRICS countries collaborate on a module for its future space station.
As China expands its space station and Russia plans for its own, the landscape of space exploration is evolving rapidly. These developments highlight the shift in global power dynamics as countries strive to establish their presence in outer space.