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Will China’s Heavenly Palace Replace the ISS?

China unveiled a replica of its first permanently crewed space station this week at an aerospace fair in Zhuhai. The nation boasts that Heavenly Palace – a 60-ton, 17-meter cylindrical core module – will soon replace the existing International Space Station (ISS). In comparison, the ISS weighs 400 tones and is slightly larger than a football field.

Heavenly Palace will also have two other modules for scientific experiments and will also be equipped with solar panels. It will station three astronauts at a time, who will be able to do biological and microgravity research.

According to the Chinese, Heavenly Palace will be ready to launch around 2022, and will have a lifespan of 10 years. In comparison, the International Space Station – a collaboration between the US, Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan – has already been in orbit for 20 years, since 1998.

However, the ISS is expected to be retired in 2024, and China will be the only country with a space station in orbit. In May, China announced that it is open to international collaboration on scientific experiments. "There is no doubt that China will use its station in a similar way as the ISS partners are using their outpost: research, technology and as a stepping-stone for deep-space exploration," said Chen Lan, analyst at GoTaikonauts.com, a website specialised in the Chinese space programme.

Already, China has received 40 plans from research institutes and universities, as well as public and private companies, in 27 countries, according to the Chinese media. The European Space Agency has sent astronauts to China to train for the work aboard the Heavenly Palace once it’s launched. "I'm sure over time China will be successful developing partnerships," said Bill Ostrove, a space analyst with US-based Forecast International consultancy.

Heavenly Palace will be ready to launch around 2022, and will have a lifespan of 10 years.

China has been a major player in the space arena for quite some time, and this is just the latest step in its space programme development. "Many countries, and increasingly private companies and universities, have space programmes, but cannot afford to build their own space station," Ostrove said. "The ability to put payloads and experiments on a human spaceflight platform is extremely valuable." China’s other plans include sending humans to the Moon in the near future. Russia has similar plans.

Not everyone is optimistic about China opening its facilities to all countries – US President Donald Trump has in his plans the creation of a Space Force to allocate funds into space defence.

It’s worth noting that the Chinese journey has not been a smooth sail. The Tiangong-1 space lab, launched into orbit in 2011, disintegrated after just two years. The Chinese authorities denied that they had lost control of the lab. The second lab, Tiangong-2,  

was launched into orbit in 2016.

Ostrove said that while the United States remains the dominant space power today, China is emerging as a major player. And Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and India will continue to play "major roles" in space exploration, while private firms are becoming increasingly important in the sector, he added. "The space market is becoming more diverse," he said, "so it will be difficult for one or two countries or companies to dominate the field in the way the US and Soviet Union did during the Cold War."