China Threatens U.S. Dominance in Space

The U.S. might be celebrating the impending launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket and the serial successes of the James Webb Space Telescope, but according to at least some experts, there’s a potential skunk at the cosmic picnic: China. Defense One has reported that scientists from the Space Force (Air Force), Defense Innovation Unit and other organizations have conducted a new study to find out how Beijing can beat the U.S. in the long game of space.

For starters, there is China’s militarization of space activities. The country’s space program has mastered the ability to rendezvous one satellite with another in orbit, allowing for close-up kills, either by destroying an enemy satellite with a projectile or blinding its optics with lasers. The country is developing other cyber-capabilities, such as jamming.

China’s space station goals also worry analysts. China is currently building a three-module, small station in low Earth orbit. China has been working towards establishing a permanent space station, even though the three-module outpost is small compared to 16-module International Space Station. In the meantime, China is working to establish a permanent space station presence.

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The report’s authors also worry about American politics. Over the past 18 years, U.S. goals for crewed exploration of deep space have changed repeatedly—with the moon or an asteroid or Mars or some combination of those destinations on the itinerary depending on who was sitting in the Oval Office. China’s autocratic government—while not a thing to be envied—at least has the advantage of picking out a destination and sticking with it. Currently, Beijing is looking to have astronauts on the moon in the 2030s—with no deviation from those plans foreseen. Without such a “North Star vision,” as the authors of the report put it, the U.S. is likely to cede its primacy in space to China by 2045.

The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Sign up now

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