It’s no secret that China has risen to prominence as a key player in space exploration. China’s National Space Agency (CNSA) has achieved a number of firsts in the last two decades. Sending men to space, establishing three space stations (as part of the Tiangong programme), creating massive launch vehicles (such as the Long March 5) and sending robotic explorers to the far side of the Moon and Mars are all part of this plan.
Chinese officials have stated that after the present space station construction is completed, they intend to build a kilometre-long spacecraft in orbit around the Earth. But, what precisely is China proposing? How near are they to constructing such a vessel? Is it even conceivable and why would they even want to construct such a massive spacecraft?
What exactly does China want to build and how?
In its official request for research proposals, China’s National Natural Science Foundation (NNSFC) describes the ship as “an important strategic aeronautical equipment for future exploitation of space resources, study of the secrets of the cosmos, and staying in long-term orbit.” Because of its very huge size, the station would have to be launched in pieces into space. However, the plan only contains a $2.3 million funding, which is certainly insufficient to build or even design such a spacecraft.
Even the time required to actually execute the planned mission would span many years’ worth of launches, and then assembling the vessel in space itself, just like the Tiangong space station is being built. (More on China’s Space Station here.)
Is China really capable of building such a spacecraft?
In the last two decades, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) has developed heavy launch vehicles such as the nine-story Long March rocket, sent humans to space, deployed stations, explored the far side of the moon, and successfully landed an orbiter, lander, and rover on the surface of Mars – the only nation to do so in a first attempt. It will also launch Xuntian – China’s space telescope, which will be the same size as the Hubble Space Telescope but with a field of vision 300 times larger.(More on China’s future space plans here.)
Hence it will come as no surprise if China, which has a history of being fairly strict with its deadlines and promises, actually accomplishes such a humongous task of building an ultra-large spacecraft spanning kilometres. It would become a major hub for every space mission to come in the future from China, and help achieve its interplanetary exploration goals faster yet.
How big will this spaceship be compared to some others?
Even though the International Orbit Station (ISS) is the largest artificial structure transported to space to date, it took numerous flights and years for the ISS to be erected in space, with human presence on site and various technology breakthroughs assisting in the process. It was manufactured and sent into space at a cost of about $150 billion. However, the projected Chinese spaceship is estimated to be almost 20 times greater in size, with a total cost of over $3 trillion.
Conclusion: Why does China want to build this kilometre long spaceship? What will its impact be?
This most recent announcement is the beginning of China thinking about how to build such a spacecraft in the future, rather than a declaration that it intends to begin construction. If successful, the spaceship would facilitate multiple future missions for the country, and make China the owner of the world’s largest operation station, which has lots more potential to be upgraded and refined by the time it is actually launched.
Interesting Read: Explained How successful is China’s space program?
Whatever the long-term aim of this kilometer-spanning spacecraft idea is, it’s evident that China is serious about its newfound standing as a significant space actor. It’s also apparent that they plan to build on that in the future years, to the point where they’ll be able to replace NASA and Roscosmos as the world’s premier space power.