One week ago, a SpaceX Dragon capsule arrived at the International Space Station (ISS). While the mission was largely routine, it carried a secret payload that was anything but – the first ever Chinese experiment on the ISS.
This event is extremely significant. Not just because of the experiment itself, which is interesting in its own right. But rather, it circumvents a ban that prevents NASA cooperating in any way with its Chinese counterpart, the China National Space Administration (CNSA).
SpaceX and NASA sought Congressional approval before including the Chinese experiment in the spacecraft, but kept it rather hush hush, with no announcement of the historic collaboration. The small 3.5-kilogram (7.7 pounds) device will investigate how microgravity affects gene mutilation. It will remain on the ISS for 30 days, before it is returned to Earth by the Dragon capsule.
"NASA complied with all legal requirements to notify the Congress of this activity, and all of the ISS partners approved the inclusion of the experiment," NASA spokesperson Kathryn Hambleton told Xinhua.
According to Ars Technica, the Beijing Institute of Technology paid about $200,000 to US company Nanoracks to deliver the experiment to the ISS. It will be stored inside one of the company’s racks on the station, where it will collect its data.
Going all the way back to 1981, US government entities have been barred from working with China. In 2011, this was extended to NASA, with an infamous bill introduced by Republican Frank Wolf banning any sharing of information between the two.
This has forced China to go it alone with its space endeavors, and they’re proving to be pretty successful. They’ve launched humans multiple times, they’ve got an experimental space station in orbit, and they’ve got grander plans to explore the Moon and Mars.
For this reason, there have been calls for NASA to soften its stance towards the CNSA. The latter, for its part, has repeatedly suggested it would be open to working with NASA, but fears they would attempt to steal or copy US technology has hampered those efforts.
Owing to the aforementioned concerns, the experiment will have no access to the station’s IT systems. China has been involved in an experiment on the ISS before, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), but this is the first Chinese-led experiment on the station.
That’s an exciting development for many who want to see more cooperation between two of the world’s biggest superpowers in space. While more than a dozen countries have been involved with the ISS, China has been noticeably absent.
If the world is going to collaborate on something like the ISS again, whether that’s a mission to the Moon or Mars, then China will surely have a part to play.