China to open its space station to commercial activities

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China plans to open its space station to commercial missions and activities, according to a senior official of the human spaceflight program.

“When our space station is completed and operational, we will actively encourage the private sector to engage in space in various ways,” Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s human spaceflight program, told China Central Television on Monday. March 9.

“The possibilities are many. We hope that there will be competitive and profitable commercial space players to participate in areas such as space applications and space resource development. The outlook is good,” Zhou said.

Last year, Chinese launch startups began citing the Tiangong space station as an opportunity to secure contracts. This apparently happened in response to a call for proposals launched in January 2021 by China’s human spaceflight agency, CMSA, seeking low-cost cargo transport solutions for China’s space station.

This announcement was the first indication that the national space station project would be open to participation by commercial companies. This move can be seen as similar to NASA’s earlier commercial cargo initiatives.

“Commercial involvement in space is on everyone’s mind, both in China and abroad. This shows the growing importance of the space sector for science and economic development,” Zhou said.

China plans to complete construction of the Tiangong space station this year. Six launches are planned to add two science modules to the core Tianhe module in orbit, as well as send two cargo ships and two crewed missions – Shenzhou 14 and 15 – to the orbital outpost.

China’s manned spaceflight needs are already evolving based on scientific and other goals. CMSA, which operates under the umbrella of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), selected seven pilots, seven spaceflight engineers and four payload specialists in a third round of astronaut selection in late 2020.

The Tiangong station is planned to operate in low Earth orbit for at least 10 years. Astronauts from other countries are also expected to visit the T-shaped outpost, which is made up of three modules.

In recent years, NASA has been looking for ways to commercialize use of the International Space Station. In December, the agency also awarded prizes worth more than $400 million to three groups of companies to advance the development of commercial space stations as part of ISS transition plans .

The United States and its partners had recently begun to consider extending the use of the ISS until 2030. However, the invasion of Ukraine and Western reactions to this invasion led the head of Roscosmos to threaten to end Russian participation in the project.

Zhou also said China welcomes continued international cooperation in space station operations.

“I know that many scientists and engineers are looking closely at the possibilities of carrying out experiments in the Chinese space laboratory. This is a great thing,” Zhou said.

“CMSA has repeatedly said that we are active in promoting the opening of China’s space lab, and that it is open to both domestic and international scientists and engineers. »

CMSA is already working with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in a joint cooperation initiative to send international experiments to Tiangong.

Jeff Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks, said last year that the company had already lost business to China and its space station.

“I lost a customer, my first customer I lost going to the Chinese space station,” Manber said in August. “We are in a competition now”.

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