Chinese eyes were on the skies this week, with the safe return of its three astronauts after 90 days on board the Tiangong space station on Friday, and a tour on Wednesday of the PLA’s primary satellite control facility by President Xi Jinping, who said space was an important asset that needed to be managed well.
“Space is an important strategic asset for the country that must be well managed and utilised and, more importantly, protected,” Xi said. He also called for strengthened space traffic management and international cooperation on security issues to improve effectiveness in managing crises in space.
Xi was visiting the PLA’s satellite monitoring and control centre in Xian, capital of Shaanxi province in northwest China, a crucial part of the country’s ambitious space programme. He also urged PLA officials to enhance combat readiness to build a world-class military, according to state news agency Xinhua.
China has significantly advanced its ambitious space programme in recent years as part of the country’s “great rejuvenation” by 2049 and reached another milestone on Friday with the return to Earth of the three-man crew after nearly three months in the Tianhe module, a core part of the space station which is still under construction.
When completed next year, Tiangong will be the largest infrastructure constructed and maintained by a single country in near-Earth orbit and has already been touted as a beacon of China’s space programme.
Meanwhile, an uncrewed third cargo spaceship, the Tianzhou-3, is set to depart on Monday with fuel and supplies for the space station. Another three astronauts are expected to head to the Tiangong in October for a six-month stay in orbit.
There have been several breakthroughs over the past months. In December, China became the third country to return rock and soil samples from the surface of the moon – the first in 44 years – and in May, it landed a six-wheeled rover on Mars, making it the second country after the US to land on the red planet.
The Mars mission prompted a warning from Nasa’s new administrator Bill Nelson, who described China as “a very aggressive competitor” to the US in the space race. Last month, Nelson again cast China as a competitor to US leadership in space, during a panel discussion at the 36th annual Space Symposium.
“Unfortunately, I believe we’re in a space race with China,” he said. Nelson said he would like China to be a partner, in the same way as Russia in the International Space Station. “But China is very secretive, and part of the civilian space programme is that you’ve got to be transparent,” he told the symposium in Colorado, according to online news portal Space.com.
China is a relative newcomer to space exploration and, amid its bitter power rivalry with the US, has turned to Russia for a space partnership. Cooperation in space is high on the agenda for Xi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as the two countries move closer in an effort to counter their shared pressures from the US.
In March, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly build an international lunar station. They also agreed to expand cooperation in lunar and deep-space exploration, satellite communication technology, aerospace components and Russia’s proposed Spektr-M scientific satellite.
In addition, Beijing and Moscow agreed on long-term cooperation in satellite navigation by enhancing the compatibility of China’s BeiDou and Russia’s Glonass satellites.