Artist impression of the future Chinese Space Station in orbit around the Earth.
Artist impression of the future Chinese Space Station. Credit: CMSA

HELSINKI — Six experiments have been granted a place aboard to the future Chinese Space Station through a joint international cooperation initiative, with three more receiving conditional acceptance.

The results of the selection process were announced jointly Wednesday by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) on the sidelines of the 62nd session of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna.

The UNOOSA-CMSA initiative received 42 applications from organizations in 27 countries following an Announcement of Opportunity issued in May 2018. The winning institutions are based in a wide range of countries, namely Belgium, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Norway, Mexico, Poland, Peru, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Switzerland.

The accepted proposals cover areas including astronomy, space medicine, space life science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion and space technologies.

POLAR-2, involving a consortium of organizations from Switzerland, Poland, Germany and China, will seek to detect Gamma-ray burst polarimetry, following a first experiment aboard the Tiangong-2 space lab.

Tumors in Space, led by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the International Space University in France and organizations in the Netherlands and Belgium, will study early mutational events due to cosmic radiation and microgravity using healthy and cancer human organoids that are 3D in nature.

“We are thrilled to be one of the selected spaceflight experiments,” Principal Investigator Dr. Tricia L. Larose told SpaceNews. “Our technical team from CMSA were both gracious and helpful throughout the process. The opportunity to conduct cutting-edge cancer research at the intersection of space technology and stem cell biology will have a global impact in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Simonetta Di Pippo, UNOOSA Director, stated at the event that, “Despite the incredible advances made in the space sector in recent decades, many millions of people worldwide still do not have access to the benefits of space. This opportunity with CMSA helps bridge this gap by opening the unique research environment on board the CSS to all Member States.”

Wang Qun, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations said: “The CSS cooperation is a vivid manifestation of the multilateralism upheld by China and the international system, with the United Nations at its core. Through this opportunity, the achievements of China’s space development will bring benefits to the international community.

Motivations and timelines

Commenting ahead of the announcement, Dr Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in international relations at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom told SpaceNewsthat a range of motivations can be identified in China’s opening of its space station to international participation.

“Chinese spacepower plays an important role in [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s effort to develop, maintain, and enhance its prestigious image and soft power in international relations, and establishing the perception of China as a technological rival to that of the United States, perhaps even surpassing Russia. The CSS is only one part of that – albeit a relatively benign and non-military aspect – compared to its now-robust military space satellite and strike weapons infrastructure the People’s Liberation Army enjoys.”

Opening up the CSS to international participation is part of a charm offensive and wider efforts by China to demonstrate that there are routes for other countries on Earth to stimulate their space technology and science sectors without the Americans, Bowen adds.

The CSS itself remains to realized. In 2014, China laid out plans to launch the three 20-metric ton modules which will make up the orbital outpost in 2018, 2020 and 2022. However, a July 2017 failure of the Long March 5 rocket has delayed the test flight of the Long March 5B, a variant for low Earth orbit launches and specifically lofting space station modules.

China is maintaining that the target for completion of the CSS is ‘around 2022’, though the launch and construction plans would apparently need to be condensed. The Long March 5 was slated for a return-to-flight this July, but open source data suggests that has slipped.

Cargo vessels specially designed to transport the components of the 5-meter-diameter, 56-meter-long heavy-lift launcher from a manufacturing site in Tianjin, north China, to the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, on the southern island province of Hainan, remain moored on the Yangtze river. The two previous Long March 5 launches required two months of launch preparations at Wenchang, leaving a July launch very unlikely.

A nominal Long March 5 flight is required before a test flight of the Long March 5B. If successful, the CSS core module ‘Tianhe’, meaning ‘harmony of the heavens’, could then be launched, likely no earlier than in the second half of 2020.

Meanwhile the International Space Station will continue its history hosting international experiments and payloads in low Earth orbit, while also being opened to potential commercial use on the American side.

“In the more than 18 years of crewed operation on the International Space Station, thousands of researchers on the ground in more than 100 countries have conducted more than 2,500 experiments in microgravity, and that number continues to grow,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz, told SpaceNews.

Japan also carries out a similar initiative through UNOOSA with KiboCUBE cooperation program for developing countries to release CubeSats from the ISS Japanese experiment module, Kibo. A fifth round of applications for KiboCUBE opened in March.

Despite an effective ban on involvement in participation in the ISS, China has also seen experiments reach the orbital outpost, with student experiments involving silkworms lost on re-entry with Shuttle Columbia STS-107.

NanoRacks, based in Houston, in 2017 notably facilitated the sending of a science experiment from Beijing Institute of Technology to the ISS on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.

Once in orbit, the CSS will allow China to demonstrate that there are routes for other countries on Earth to stimulate their space technology and science sectors without the Americans, Bowen notes and demonstrate Chinese, “will and capacity in spite of its exclusion from the ISS.”

“With time, resources and political will, China can and will do what it deems necessary. That’s a narrative I think Chinese officials are keen to play and will of course enjoy the benefits the CSS will bring, especially if it means putting a nice international science cooperation face on it.”

Andrew Jones covers China's space industry for GBTIMES and SpaceNews. He is based in Helsinki, Finland.