Science | Design & Technology | Computing

China to complete space ‘heavenly palace’

Is Xi Jinping taking over outer space? By 2030, it aims to have put its first astronauts on the Moon and to have sent probes to collect samples from asteroids, Mars and Jupiter. The sands of the Gobi Desert shook as the rocket roared into life. On board, the three astronauts felt the pull of gravity for the last time in six months. In seven hours’ time they would reach their destination: the first non-American, non-Russian space station. China decided to build the Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, station in 2011 after the US government banned its astronauts from the International Space Station. The Americans were worried about the Chinese finding out about their technology. Last year, Tianhe – the main part of the Tiangong– was sent into orbit. The astronauts’ job is to connect it to two laboratory modules. The whole station will measure just over 100 square metres – a similar size to the 1980s Soviet Mir station. In the past 10 years China has launched over 200 rockets and sent a probe to the Moon. In 2020, it launched a satellite to complete its Beidon global-navigation system. Next year it will send up a space telescope. It also aims to collect samples from asteroids by 2025, and send probes to Mars and Jupiter by 2030. China wants to build a nuclear-powered space shuttle by 2040. According to a Bloomberg report, “Like China’s big infrastructure projects here on earth, their goals are to get a foothold in space technology that will drive profit, make them independent from US technology, get an upper hand in military operations, and show superiority on the world stage.” But the programme has had setbacks. Two rocket launches failed in 2020, and during the launch of Tianhe in 2021, the 22-ton core stage of the rocket spun out of control and landed in the sea. And China faces plenty of competition. The US is building a space station to orbit the Moon, the Lunar Gateway, and India hopes to have a space station by 2030. Is Xi Jinping taking over outer space? Planetary mandarins? Yes: The Chinese space programme has made enormous advances in recent years. With a dictatorial government and huge resources of money and manpower, there is nothing it cannot achieve. No: China still lags far behind the US, which has more powerful rockets and seven times as many satellites. The US spends far more on space technology and has a booming commercial industry as well. Or... The International Space Station symbolised an era of cooperation which seems to be coming to an end. Even if no nation comes to dominate space, the rivalry will shape the next phase of exploration. KeywordsGobi Desert - The largest desert in Asia, covering over 500,000 square miles.

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