The return to Earth of three astronauts last week after six months at China’s new space station marks a landmark step in the country’s space ambitions, ending its longest crewed mission ever.
The world’s second-largest economy has put billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of eventually sending humans to the Moon.
China has come a long way in catching up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have decades of experience in space exploration. Here is a look at the country’s space programme, and where it is headed:
Soon after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong pronounced: “We too will make satellites.”
It took more than a decade, but in 1970, China launched its first satellite on a Long March rocket. Human spaceflight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming the first Chinese “taikonaut” in 2003.
As the launch approached, concerns over the viability of the mission caused Beijing to cancel a live television broadcast at the last minute. But it went smoothly, with Yang orbiting the Earth 14 times during a 21-hour flight aboard the Shenzhou 5. China has launched seven crewed missions since.
Space station and ‘Jade Rabbit’
Following in the footsteps of the United States and Russia, China began planning to build its own space station circling the planet.
The Tiangong-1 lab was launched in 2011. In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, gave a video class from inside the space module to children across the world’s most populous country.
The craft was also used for medical experiments and, most importantly, tests intended to prepare for the construction of a space station.
That was followed by the “Jade Rabbit” lunar rover in 2013, which initially appeared a dud when it turned dormant and stopped sending signals back to Earth. It made a dramatic recovery, however, ultimately surveying the Moon’s surface for 31 months — well beyond its expected lifespan.
In 2016, China launched its second orbital lab, the Tiangong-2. Astronauts who visited the station have run experiments on growing rice and other plants.
Under President Xi Jinping, plans for China’s “space dream” have been put into overdrive.
Beijing is looking to finally catch up with the United States and Russia after years of belatedly matching their milestones.
Besides a space station, China is also planning to build a base on the Moon, and the country’s National Space Administration said it aims to launch a crewed lunar mission by 2029. But lunar work was dealt a setback in 2017 when the Long March-5 Y2, a powerful heavy-lift rocket, failed to launch on a mission to send communication satellites into orbit.
That forced the postponement of the Chang’e-5 launch, originally scheduled to collect Moon samples in the second half of 2017.
Another robot, the Chang’e-4, landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019 — a historic first.
This was followed by one that landed on the near side of the Moon last year, raising a Chinese flag on the lunar surface.
The unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth in December with rocks and soil — the first lunar samples collected in four decades. And in February 2021, the first images of Mars were sent back by the five-tonne Tianwen-1, which then landed a rover on the Martian surface in May that has since started to explore the surface of the Red Planet.
Palace in the sky
A trio of astronauts docked successfully in October with the core Tianhe module of the Chinese space station, which was placed in orbit in April 2021.
The astronauts stayed at the station for six months before returning safely to Earth on Saturday, ending China’s longest crewed mission to date.
The Chinese space station Tiangong — meaning “heavenly palace” — will need a total of around 11 missions to bring more parts and assemble them in orbit.
Once completed, it is expected to remain in low Earth orbit at between 400 and 450 kilometres (250 and 280 miles) above our planet for at least 10 years — realising an ambition to maintain a long-term human presence in space.
While China does not plan to use its space station for global cooperation on the scale of the International Space Station, Beijing said it is open to foreign collaboration.
It is not yet clear how extensive that cooperation will be.
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Space exploration sets example in global cooperation
China is ready to work with all countries and regions that are committed to the peaceful use of outer space to carry out more international cooperation and exchanges, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
Wang said foreign astronauts are welcomed to visit China’s space station and work with Chinese astronauts to jointly explore the mysteries of the universe and build a community with a shared future for mankind.
China’s achievements and openness in outer space explorations have been welcomed worldwide and have produced win-win results.
China conducted human body medical research in a micro-gravitational environment with France during the Shenzhou XI manned spaceflight mission, carried out joint CAVES training and maritime rescue drills with the European Astronaut Centre.
China has completed the selection of the first batch of international space science experiments to be conducted on Tianhe, and carried out technological cooperation and exchanges with Germany, Italy and Russia on space science experiments and the development of space station sections.
Tianwen 1 mission
In the China’s first Mars exploration project, China cooperated with the European Space Agency on engineering technology, and with Austria and France on payloads. It has established a Mars probe orbit data exchange mechanism with the United States, and launched international onboard payload cooperation in its asteroid exploration mission.
China has cooperated with foreign space agencies on engineering technology and carrying payloads for other countries in the lunar exploration. In the Chang’e 4 mission China cooperated with Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia on payloads.
The Chang’e 5 lunar probe brought back 1,731 grams of samples from the moon in 2020, and China said it would share the samples with the international community.
Beidou Navigation Satellite System
China has coordinated the development of Beidou system with the US GPS system, Russia’s GLONASS system and Europe’s Galileo system. It has carried out in-depth cooperation with them in the fields of compatibility, interoperability, monitoring and assessment, and joint application.
China has increased the system’s global service capacity by establishing cooperation forum mechanisms, building overseas centers and conducting satellite navigation cooperation with countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, South Africa, Algeria, and Thailand.
China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite programme
In 1999, the first China-Brazil earth resource satellite was successfully launched, giving each country its first transmission-type remote sensing satellite. China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite 04A, the sixth satellite jointly built by China and Brazil, was launched in 2019.
The program set a good example for cooperation among developing countries in the field of space technology, and was praised as a model of “South-South cooperation”. Data from the satellites are provided to developing nations for free.