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China science

China and US should cooperate on space exploration

The more crowded the cosmos gets, the greater the need for management to deal with disputes, debris and the threat of weapons

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2017, 1:49am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 May, 2017, 1:49am

There is every reason why China and the United States should work together in space. As the leading space powers, they are best placed to shape the rules that will be needed to cope with the ever-increasingly crowded cosmos. But as the launch of the first Chinese cargo freighter shows, cooperation is not even taking place at the most basic of levels. The ship, Tianzhou-1, will carry building materials and crew for the construction of China’s space station, an inevitability given a US ban on involvement in the world’s only such project.

US lawmakers banned China from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2011 to prevent espionage. Driven by rivalry and mistrust, their justification was to protect national interests. But space is expensive to explore and scientists have no need for politics; it gets in the way of their thirst for knowledge and discovery. That is why the US, the main builder and operator of the ISS, has already invited aboard astronauts and scientists from 15 countries.

What is the Tianzhou 1 and why does it matter in China’s ambitious space mission?

Space is, after all, increasingly important to most facets of our lives. Services like communications, navigation and data transmission are reliant on satellites and with growing demand and expectations, they need to be ever-more sophisticated. Improved technology makes new industries possible, with space tourism the most imminent, but ideas like asteroid mining and laser communications are now perceived as being close at hand. Space, by some estimates, already accounts for US$330 billion of business that employs more than one million people and the research and experiments that can be carried out in space make for ever-greater possibilities.

China being shut out of the ISS made development of its own space station inevitable. The successful launch of the Tianzhou-1 means work can start next year for a scheduled completion date in 2020. No nation has had such an ambitious space programme that has achieved so much so quickly; China’s first manned space flight was just 14 years ago and since then, there have been two- and three-person crews, the mastering of space walking and orbital docking, the sending to the moon of multiple spacecraft including a lunar rover and plans are under way for a mission to Mars. In terms of know-how and investment, China and the US are the leaders.

China’s first cargo spacecraft Tianzhou-1 docks as planned with orbiting space lab

The two nations should be, and need to be, cooperating. But their scientists and astronauts working together is only one element; the more crowded space gets, the greater the need for management to deal with disputes, debris and the threat of weapons, among much else. Investors will want predictability. China and the US can help formulate and shape regulations. But that will be difficult if they have no experience of collaboration.