By the end of 2022, China hopes to have its biggest space station yet orbiting around Earth, and the country’s space agency wants other nations to use it. China is inviting all members of the United Nations to submit applications to fly experiments on board the future habitat, dubbed the China Space Station. It’s a major step toward international cooperation for China and its space program, which has mostly relied on domestic hardware and capabilities in the past.
“The China Space Station belongs not only to China, but also to the world,” Shi Zhongjun, China’s ambassador to the UN, said in a statement about the initiative. As a guide for the decision, Zhongjun cited the 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty, which maintains that the exploration of space should be peaceful and benefit all countries.
United Nations members have three options for how to use the China Space Station: researchers can create their own experiments to be flown inside or outside the habitat or they can utilize the lab facilities that China will install inside the station. Institutions like universities, private companies, and public organizations have been asked to send in their proposals by August 31st, 2018. China and the UN are placing particular emphasis on applications from developing countries.
China has flown a few payloads developed by other nations before, but its space program has mostly been insular. Recently, the country has signaled that it wants to expand its relationships with other countries in the realm of space. In the last couple of years, for example, China and the European Space Agency have been training a few of their astronauts together, with the goal of someday sending a European astronaut to stay on China’s future space station.
With this latest initiative, China is hoping to increase its cooperative efforts, similar to how NASA and Russia have engaged with numerous international partners to pull off space missions. “They’re hoping to project a positive image of showing they want to work with other countries, while demonstrating their technological prowess,” Andrew Jones, a freelance journalist covering China’s spaceflight program, tells The Verge.
The announcement also comes at a time when the future of the current International Space Station, helmed by NASA and the Russian space agency, is in doubt. The Trump administration wants to end direct NASA funding for the ISS by 2025 (though many in Congress are opposed). The administration’s plan is to transition the ISS over to the private sector by then, though that strategy doesn’t seem like it will work, according to NASA’s inspector general. Given the uncertainty with the ISS, the China Space Station could offer an attractive alternative for researchers looking to do experiments in microgravity.
Of course, there’s still much to be done before the China Space Station will be open to people and experiments. Though China has been ramping up its spaceflight efforts over the last decade, the country has only launched six crewed spaceflight missions since 2003, and the longest human spaceflight mission lasted only a month. Additionally, China plans to launch the core module of the space station on the country’s Long March 5 rocket, but the vehicle has been grounded after it failed in July 2017. The rocket needs to make a critical return to flight later this year before it can send up pieces of the space station.
“They’re going to have to start launching a lot more often, a lot longer missions, and that’s going to be a great challenge,” says Jones. “They need to build up experience.”