NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology and International Relations

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NIAS Fortnightly on Science, Technology and International Relations
China in Space: Shenzhou-13 and Tiangong

  STIR Team

The Chinese space station would be less bulky in comparison to the International Space Station (ISS). However, China is yet to garner support from the other space powers in this regard. Although nine countries have signed up to work with the space station, the initiative has the potential to rope in many space programs to collaborate or cooperate on the Tiangong space station.

Vol 1, No. 21, 03 May 2022     

Cover Story

By Harini Madhusudan

China in Space: Shenzhou-13 and Tiangong 

On 16 April, three Chinese astronauts returned to Earth after completing a record number of 183 days in Space. The crew spent time on the Tianhe core module of China’s Tiangong Space Station. The touchdown marked the ending of the Shenzhou-13 mission after a national-record of six months in orbit with the vast majority of time spent aboard Tianhe.

The astronauts during their time at the space station, performed two spacewalks, conducted over 20 science experiments, set up equipment, tested technologies for future constructions, and delivered two live educational lectures from the module. The Shenzhou-13 mission was the second of the four crewed missions that have been mapped to assemble the Tiangong, it also set new records for having the first woman to live aboard Tianhe, and the first Chinese woman to conduct a spacewalk. Following the ban placed by the US on the Chinese participation in the International Space Station (ISS), China has spent a decade in developing technologies and the ecosystem to build the Tiangong, making it the second Space Station after the ISS. In June 2022, China is set to launch three more astronauts aboard the Shenzhou 14 capsule to add two modules as part of the construction process.


Tiangong: An introduction and missions

Tiangong is the third attempt by China at a space station after Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 predecessors in 2011 and 2016. The journey of building its space station began with the project approval first made in 1992. China stands as the third country globally to launch astronauts on its own, after the Soviet Union and the US. The Chinese government hopes to complete the construction phase of the space station by the end of 2022, and welcome foreign astronauts aboard the space station.

The China Manned Space Agency has announced that there would be six more flights scheduled, with the aim to complete the station’s construction process which includes two manned missions, two supply runs, and two experimental modules. Once the space station enters the operational stage, it is expected to run for over ten years. Additionally, China has stated that its project is open to all UN member states and has already signed nine experimental projects that involve 17 countries and 23 entities for the first batch of scientific studies to be carried out on the space station.


The core module is named Tianhe. The technology is about the same size as a bus, containing the critical infrastructure which would make the primary system of the space station. The Tianhe contains the life support, the living quarters, and the control systems. The size of this module will be about 22.5 tonnes, making it the biggest and the heaviest spacecraft constructed by China. The Tianhe was launched on 29 April 2021 aboard the Long March 5B rocket. The Long March rockets have one core stage and four boosters the length of 28 meters and more than 3 meters wide, or approximately the height of a nine-story building. The Long March 5B weighs about 850 tonnes when fully fuelled, with a payload capacity of 25 tonnes, into low Earth orbit. However, during the launch, the core stage of the rocket which weighed around 20 tonnes, spun out of control and splashed into the Indian Ocean a week later. Eventually, after leaving tonnes of space junk, the Tianhe was delivered safely into orbit. The station orbits the Earth every 91 minutes.

Tianhe is much larger than the Tiangong-1 and the Tiangong-2 test labs that China launched in 2011 and 2016. The Tianhe has featured regenerative life support which even includes a way to recycle urine. The agenda is to ensure astronauts stay in orbit for long periods with an expansive usable space for the astronauts so that they could feel the experience similar to living in a villa.


On 29 May 2021, the Tianzhou-2 was an uncrewed mission carrying 4.69 tons of pressurized cargo and 1.95 tons of propellant. This mission was intended to prepare for the arrival of astronauts of the Shenzhou-12 mission. The cargo spacecraft was launched atop a Long March 7 rocket.


On 16 June 2021, the Shenzhou-12 mission was launched atop a Long March 2F rocket. The crewed mission transported three members to China’s Space Station for the first time. It also marked the first crewed spaceflight for China in five years. The crew spent three months aboard the Tianhe and performed tests and maintenance activities and also verified and operated the core module and its various systems. The crew also assembled and tested spacesuits and performed two spacewalks outside Tianhe, managed and monitored their health, and conducted S&T experiments.


On 20 September 2021, the uncrewed Tianzhou-3 was launched aboard the Long March 7 rocket. It is the second cargo resupply mission and carried over six tonnes of supplies. On 20 April 2022, the Tianzhou-3 successfully relocated itself from the aft port to the forward port of the Tianhe. Unlike the earlier launches with four solar panels, the Tianzhou-3 had only three segments of solar panels and had four maneuvering engines, unlike the two engines in the previous missions.


On 15 October, the Shenzhou-13 was launched atop a Long March 2F launch vehicle, marking China’s eighth crewed mission. The crew spent 183 days and returned on 16 April 2022. The Shenzhou-13 marks the second of the four crewed missions planned before the operationalization of the Tiangong. One of the highlights of this mission was the televised interaction. A session between the three Taikonauts and American students, hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC. Elon Musk was also featured in the event with a message of cooperation in space, in a pre-recorded message.

Upcoming missions

Following these, an unmanned cargo mission Tianzhou-4 is planned for 10 May 2022, for the upcoming Shenzhou-14 crewed mission, likely on 5 June 2022. The Wentian and Mengtian modules are scheduled to be launched in July and October 2022. The Tiangong is designed to be used for 10 years with the potential to extend up to 15 years. The Tiangong could be expanded to six modules in the future, and an additional Tianhe core module, according to the expert estimates of the chief designer of the space station.

Once the Tiangong is completed it will be joined by a Hubble-like telescope. This telescope would share the space station’s orbit with the ability to dock on Tiangong for repairs, upgrades, and maintenance. The telescope is named Xuntian, meaning “survey the heavens,” and it would have a 2-meter diameter mirror-like the Hubble. Xuntian has a field view 300 times greater than Hubble and it would aim to survey 40 per cent of the sky with its 2.5 billion pixel camera. This telescope is expected to be launched in 2023.

To slow their velocity and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the CMSA spacecraft use de-orbital burns with their crewed missions. These vehicles have a heat shield that prevents any destruction caused due to aerodynamic heating when the vehicle comes in contact with the Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the space station, once its life is completed, no heat shield has been set up. However, there are deorbit maneuvers in place for the parts that would reach earth.


The Chinese space station and the International Space Station (ISS)

The Chinese space station is being set to be a third-generation modular space station, like the ISS. Third-generation modular stations are assembled in orbit from the compartments that are launched separately. The Tiangong space station is being constructed between 340-450 km above the surface at the lower Earth orbit. Second, to the ISS, the Tiangong is at a range similar to the ISS which is at an altitude of 400 kilometers. In terms of the mass, the Tiangong, once it is fully loaded, is expected to have a mass of approximately 100 metric tons, which is incidentally the same size as the Russian Mir space station, which was decommissioned. It would roughly be one-fifth the mass of the ISS. In terms of the modules, the Tiangong is currently expected to have three modules- the Tianhe core module, the Wentian Laboratory Cabin Module, and the Mengtian Laboratory Cabin Module. The ISS in its 22 years of service has 16 modules- five Russian, eight US, one European, and two more scheduled to be added.

The construction of the Tiangong is around the Tianhe core module, which acts as the main one providing life support, living quarters for the crew, guidance, navigation, and orientation control for the station. The ISS is divided into two sections the Russian Orbital Segment operated by Russia and the United States Orbital Segment operated by the US along with other nations. Each segment has its own living quarters as well as science laboratories. In the case of Airlocks and Robotic arms, the ISS boasts of very useful and efficient systems that are not present in the Chinese space station yet. In the case of the docking systems of the two space stations, the Tiangong is fitted with a Chinese docking mechanism that is likely based on the Russian Androgynous Peripheral Attach System (APAS-89/ APAS-95), which is used by the Shenzhou spacecraft and was also a part of the previous Tiangong prototypes. While many claims that the Tiangong docking system is a clone of the APAS which would make it compatible with the ISS docking system, it is unclear if the two systems would be entirely compatible. And while the ISS has so far supported up to 13 members, the Tiangong is currently equipped to host three.

Both the ISS and the Tiangong use solar power to sustain the stations. While the ISS electrical system uses photovoltaics, the Tiangong uses two steerable solar power arrays. In terms of the subjects/experiments conducted, both the ISS and the Tiangong lay focus on similar areas such as life sciences, microgravity fluid physics and combustion, material science in space, biotechnology, and fundamental physics in microgravity. The Chinese space station has an ambitious schedule of experiments and the station is due to be equipped with more than 20 experimental racks in enclosed, pressurized environments. More than 1,000 experiments have been tentatively approved by the CMSA.

The Tiangong is highly similar to the ISS but has incorporated a more minimized model of a space station. The smaller weight and the space for a smaller crew can be seen as a sign of more technologically advanced systems that include automated and less bulky technology. With the potential to expand beyond the initial plans, the Tiangong, at its best, would be as productive and likely more productive than the ISS.



While the US has steadily remained apprehensive of the Chinese efforts with their Space Station, the US ban of China on the ISS may have been a rewarding factor for activities in Outer Space. Considering the fact that the International Space Station is on the final leg of its life cycle, Tiangong would be the ideal and timely alternative to the same. Additionally, with the private sector factoring the major roles of the governments in space, it would be only a matter of time before the space corporations begin to set up their own space stations for commercial purposes. China, too, has considered opening up the Tiangong for tourism at a later phase of its journey.

Miniaturization of technology has been effectively displayed in the case of Tiangong. Though the scale of the space station cannot be derived until its completion, China’s space station would be less bulky in comparison to the ISS. However, China has yet to garner support from the other space powers in this regard, though nine countries have signed up to work with the space station, the initiative has the potential to rope in many space programs to collaborate or cooperate on the Tiangong. Russia has shown interest in the space station, and in the coming years, one may get to see a series of cooperative initiatives related to the Tiangong from the private and the government sectors.



Fan Anqi, “China’s space station first to be open to all UN member states: Chinese FM,” Global Times, 18 April 2022.

Andrew Jones, “China’s Tiangong space station,”, 24 August 2021.

Loukia Papadopoulos, “Here is how the Chinese Tiangong Space Station compares to the ISS,Interesting Engineering, 21 September 2021.

Mike Wall, “China launches new cargo ship to Tianhe space station module,”, 29 May 2021.

Mike Wall, “China launches 3 astronauts to the new space station,”, 17 June 2021.

Andrew Jones, “China plans to open its Tiangong space station for tourism within a decade,”, 22 March 2022.

Erik Gregersen, “Tiangong: Chinese Space Stations,” Britannica.

Paulo de Souza, “China’s Tiangong space station: what it is, what it’s for, and how to see it,” TheConversation, 10 May 2021.

Andrew Jones,China’s Shezhou-12 astronauts send back stunning images of Earth,”, 14 September 2021.

China sending up next Tiangong space station crew in June,” Associated Press, 17 April 2022.

About the author

Harini Madhusudan is a doctoral scholar at NIAS. Her doctoral research is on the issue of militarisation in outer space. As part of the Europe Studies at NIAS, her research focuses on Russian geopolitics and diplomacy along with a coverage of the European Islands & Oceans. She particularly researches issues relating to science and technology such as new innovations, outer space, and cybersecurity.

In Brief
By Jeshil Samuel J

Cambodia: The emerging NFT market

On 27 April, the government of Cambodia stated that it would continue prohibiting the circulation or issuance of any cryptocurrency. On the same day, the Cambodian Ministry of Finance and Economics reiterated the government’s policy of banning the use of cryptocurrencies. Despite the government choosing to follow the blanket ban imposed earlier on cryptos in 2018, Cambodia has seen a surge in Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) sales.

NFTs are digital assets that function on the same blockchain technology as cryptocurrencies. An NFT could be anything from an audio, video, or image file, with the only difference being the tokenization of the file. Once a buyer purchases an NFT, that person has the only copy of that file. The purchased NFT can neither be replicated, shared, split, or altered since it is part of an immutable record (a blockchain). In 2021, the global sales of NFTs were estimated to be USD 22 billion, and this number is expected to grow to USD 80 billion by 2025. Despite their steep prices, investors and banks worldwide have warned about the long-term viability of such digital assets since they do not have any tangible value in the real world.

The NFT craze in Cambodia started in August 2021 when Prince Narithipong Norodom purchased an Olympic-themed NFT artwork for USD 16,000. Following the massive purchase, in September 2021, Cambodia’s first NFT marketplace Krama was created. Krama was created to serve as a new platform for Cambodian artists to exhibit their pieces on the country’s history. In October 2021, an event backed by the Asian Development Bank saw the creation of Fauna Conservation NFT. The NFT was created by two Cambodia-based ex-pats and was also Asia’s first NFT to help in conserving the environment.

The versatility of NFTs allowed the digital asset even to enter the Cambodian sports and beverage industry. Cambodian football team Angkor Tiger FC partnered with GameFi (a platform that hosts play-to-earn games) in March 2022 to purchase NFTs and other in-game digital assets from the platform. Meanwhile, Cambodian rum distillery Samai announced that they would be offering NFT tokens on OpenSea (a popular NFT platform) that would allow the buyers to avail many exclusive benefits.

Despite the growing popularity of NFTs (particularly amongst the youth) in the Southeast Asian region, the governments in the region have been split on digital assets in general. Countries like Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand have welcomed the sale and trade of NFTs. In contrast, other countries like Thailand and Cambodia still find it challenging to legalize digital assets. No matter what the stance may be, the sale of NFTs is lucrative, and countries like Cambodia could use them to promote various small-scale and medium-sized businesses. (DataSpring Editors,Southeast Asia, the NFT Market Hotbed,” data spring, 9 December 2021; He Luman,Cambodia strictly bans the use and trading of cryptocurrencies,” China News, 27 April 2022; AFP,NFTs: Much hyped, but how do they work,” Khmer Times, 21 December 2021; B2B,” Cambodian NFTs emerging in the marketplace,” Business2Business, 28 December 2021.)

S&T Nuggets

By Akriti Sharma and Harini Madhusudan


Environment: Global decline in the reptile species

On 27 April, Nature published a study titled “A global reptile assessment highlights shared conservation needs of tetrapods”. The study highlights the anthropogenic influence on biodiversity. It has assessed 10,196 species and has evaluated each species from 2004 to 2019. Approximately 20 per cent of reptile species are at the risk of extinction due to the increasing farming and urbanization. Turtles and crocodiles are at the highest risk. Climate change has played a role in the threat to 10 per cent of the species. In 2020, the largest lizard, the Komodo dragon was classified as endangered because of global warming, sea-level rise, and climate change. (Neil Cox,A global reptile assessment highlights shared conservation needs of tetrapodsNature, 27 April 2022; Catrin Einhorn, From King Cobras to Geckos, 20 Percent of Reptiles Risk Extinction,” The New York Times, 27 April 2022)

Environment: High deforestation levels globally

On 28 April, an annual report published by the World Resource Institute, tropical regions across the world has lost 9.3 million acres of forests in 2021. It has in turn led to 2.5 billion metric tons of emissions of carbon dioxide. Brazil has lost the most forest cover followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bolivia. The causes of forest loss in tropical regions are mining and agriculture activities. In November 2021, at the UN COP 26, 141 countries had agreed to halt deforestation by 2030 including Brazil,  the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bolivia. The positive development was recorded in Asia. Indonesia has recorded a decline of one-fourth in forest loss for the fifth year. Similarly, Malaysia has also seen a decline in forest loss. (Henry Fountain, Deforestation Remains High, Despite International Pledges,” The New York Times, 28 April 2022)

Nepal: Wildfires due to dry conditions

On 24 April, 103 wildfires across Nepal broke out due to extreme heat and dry conditions. According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, 2400 fires have been recorded in the last year which killed 432 cattle and 100 people. The wildfires usually start on the farms where the farmers when they burn the remains of the crops after the harvest. The wildfires eventually lead to poor air quality in the country increasing the public health risks. (Arjun Poudel, Dry conditions are fuelling wildfires but authorities are ill-equipped to tackle them,” The Kathmandu Post, 26 April 2022)


Health: Viral spillovers due to changing climate

On 28 April, a study published in the Nature titled “Climate change increases cross-species viral transmission risk” found out that climate change will increase the risk of viral spread in the coming 50 years. The study has claimed that there is 10,000 virus that is silently circulating in animal bodies. However, climate change can aid in the circulation of the virus to other mammals. Malaria is one of the diseases that is expected to increase because of the expansion of mosquitoes to warmer regions. The study has also looked into the potential spillovers through computer models. Due to higher temperatures, the species will move away from the equator and find refuge in the colder regions which can increase the potential risk of infecting the other species in that region. (Carl Zimmer,Climate Change Will Accelerate Viral Spillovers, Study Finds,” The New York Times, 28 April 2022)

The US: First human case of H5N1 bird flu

On 29 April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the first case of H5NI bird fl was detected in the US in a person in Colorado who was involved in the culling of poultry that was infected. According to the CDC, this is the second human case globally, the first was detected in the UK. CDC said: “This case does not change the human risk assessment for the general public, which CDC considers to be low,”  The patient had fatigue as a symptom and recovered thereafter. The patient was treated with the influenza antiviral drug oseltamivir. (US reports a first human case of H5N1 bird flu,” Al Jazeera, 29 April 2022)


The US: Space Force demands geospatial intelligence

On 27 April, at the 2022 GEOINT Symposium, the deputy chief of space operations of the US Space Force, revealed plans to request for funding that would cover space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. GEOINT is an intelligence-gathering system that has spent decades gathering intelligence from terrestrial spaces. The US Military and the Space Force propose to use the technology to gather information and track objects and activities in space. To justify this, he contextualized the need by referring to the Russian ASAT test, Chinese Hypersonic capabilities, radio frequency interference, and cyberattacks in terrestrial nodes, in the background of the growing threat to the US assets and the services provided by them. (Debra Werner,Space Force has an insatiable demand for geospatial intelligence,” SpaceNews, 28 April 2022)

China: Plans to build a lunar constellation

On 24 April, the deputy director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced China’s plans to set up a constellation around the moon with an aim to provide communication and navigation services for future services on the lunar surface. It is estimated that the launch of the first batch for the small constellation would begin in 2023 or early 2024 and added that the other countries are welcome to join the initiative. (Andrew Jones, China to build lunar communication and navigation constellation,Space News, 27 April 2022)

Ukraine: Questions on the US move to release sensitive satellite imagery

On 26 April, at the GEOINT Symposium, the US undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security spoke of the decision of releasing sensitive satellite imagery of the Russian troop movement. In the weeks before the Russian attacks, the US government publicly released sensitive intelligence claiming the Russian movement as false flag operations. This brings to the fore serious legal complications if Russia chooses to hold the US accountable. The undersecretary claimed that the decision was a gutsy one and that the team of the US government is working closely with the commercial Earth observation companies to release such information globally while proposing a partnership with the private sector. (Sandra Erwin,DoD intelligence chief: US-made ‘gutsy decision’ to release sensitive imagery to counter Russia’s deception ops,” SpaceNews, 27 April 2022)


China: DJI suspends business in Russia and Ukraine

On 30 April, BBC reported the Chinese commercial drone maker DJI’s announcement to stop its drones from being used by Russia and its decision to suspend all business activities in Russia and Ukraine. DJI- the largest commercial drone maker, stated that the decision was not targeted at any specific country and that their drones were not for military use. The Russian military is known to be actively using drones for short-range reconnaissance. The company in its statement stressed that their products were meant only for civilian use and that they would enable geofencing on their devices at the request of Ukraine if the situation worsens. The move is seen as a significant positive step by the company. (Chris Vallance,Chinese drone firm DJI pauses operations in Russia and Ukraine, BBC Technology, 30 April 2022)

Central African Republic: Bitcoin voted as legal tender

On 30 April, the lawmakers of the Central African Republic unanimously approved Bitcoin as the legal tender. This makes CAR the second country after El Salvador, to adopt Bitcoin officially with many calling it a bold and the most visionary move. Though the country has mineral riches, it is one of the world’s poorest countries. There have been fears raised about the validity of the formal adoption of cryptocurrencies for legal tender. However, the other side of the picture shows this as an attempt by the former French colonies in Africa to move away from the influence of the French-backed CFA franc as the currency. This is also in the context of CAR shifting its strategic alliance from France, toward Russia. (Bitcoin becomes official currency in the Central African Republic, BBC Technology, 30 April 2022.)

About the author

Harini Madhusudan and Akriti Sharma are doctoral scholars at NIAS. Jeshil Samuel J is a postgraduate scholar from the Department of International Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru.


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