China’s Own Space Station
China has launched a core module of its own space station, moving a step closer to the finishing touches on the country’s decades-old manned space program. Encased in the extra-large fairing of the country’s state-of-the-art Long March-5B launch vehicle, the 16.6-meter-long, 4.2-meter-diameter Tianhe (literally meaning Harmony in Heaven) core module, rose from the tropical island province of Hainan on April 29. After a flight time of around one hour, the solar panels onboard the spacecraft smoothly unfolded and functioned normally, marking the mission’s complete success, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA). China hopes to have the new station operational by 2022. At present, the only space station currently in orbit is the International Space Station (ISS) from which China is excluded – It is a collaboration between Russia, the US, Canada, Europe and Japan. The ISS is due to be retired after 2024, which could potentially leave Tiangong as the only space station in Earth’s orbit.
China’s Foray into Space
Although China has been a late starter when it comes to space exploration – it was only in 2003 that it sent its first astronaut into orbit, making it the third country to do so, after the Soviet Union and the US – yet it has, in recent years, made no secret of its space ambitions. It has poured significant funding into its space efforts, and, in 2019, became the first country to send an uncrewed rover to the far side of the Moon.
So far, China has sent two space stations into orbit. The Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 were trial stations though, simple modules that allowed only relatively short stays of astronauts.
Why China’s Own Space Station?
Since the first rudimentary station was created in 1969, people on Earth have put a total of 11 such facilities in Earth’s orbit. Although dozens of countries have carried out space programs since then, only three have independently sent humans into space – the former Soviet Union, the United States and China. The Soviets and the Americans started their manned space programs against the backdrop of the Cold War space race, while China’s original intention to build a space station targeted the huge social, economic, and most importantly, scientific benefits behind it. But, China was excluded from the ISS.
Having been frozen out of the ISS program by the US, Beijing decided to build its own. President Xi Jinping has also thrown his support behind the country’s space endeavours and the Chinese state media regularly cast the “space dream” as one step in the path to “national rejuvenation”.
Although Beijing has been excluded from the ISS project, the country’s own space station has garnered far-ranging collaboration and support. In 2018, the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) jointly announced that nine scientific experiments from 17 countries had been accepted to be conducted on board the upcoming ICSS.
The selected experiments come from both developed and developing countries, including France, Germany, Japan, Kenya and Peru, and they cover a broad range of scientific subjects, including Earth’s observation, solar cells, space life sciences and biotechnology.
The space station
The space station will form a T-shape with Tianhe at the center and two lab capsules, Wentian and Mengtian, on each side, according to Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s manned space program.
The Tianhe core module, which is 16.6 metres long with a maximum diameter of 4.2 metres and a takeoff mass of 22.5 tonnes, is the largest spacecraft China has ever developed.
It will be the management and command centre of the whole space station, which will provide propulsion to maintain the orbit of the complex and control its internal working conditions. It will also be the main living place of the coming astronauts, where they can also conduct planned scientific and technological experiments.
The core module has a habitable space of about 50 cubic metres. When the two lab capsules are in place, the complex will have a total living space of 110 cubic metres.
The core module has two berth ports that can connect with the two lab capsules and three docking ports for any cargo vessel, manned spaceship and other spacecraft to come. It also has an exit for astronauts to conduct extravehicular activities.
Wentian lab capsule and Mengtian lab capsule are similar to the core module in length, size and weight, with more specific details yet to be unveiled, according to Bao Weimin, a space expert at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. They will mainly be used for scientific experiments in such fields as biology, materials and basic physics.
The space station will operate in the low-Earth orbit at an altitude of about 400 km to 450 km above the Earth’s surface. It has a designed life of 10 years, but experts believe it could operate more than 15 years with appropriate maintenance and repairs.
What experiments will be conducted and what facilities are available?
It’s the first time China is operating scientific experiment facilities as heavy as 500 kilograms, close to the mass of a medium-sized satellite. As for the experiments to be conducted in the core module, they are mainly categorized into two kinds, namely container-less material science experiments, and high-quality micro-gravity scientific experiments.
Both experiments require intensive participation of the astronauts. For instance, after the completion of the experiment on one batch of samples in a rack for container-less material science experiments, the astronauts need to put new samples on the rack.
Carrying out the tasks of the core module means China will take a fundamental and critical step in space science application of the space station. Chinese scientists will verify the general key technologies for the space station, conduct experiments on space material science and research into micro-gravity fundamental physics.
Mastering the key technologies of large-scale space experiment facilities, Chinese scientists will also build a space-ground integrated system, which will bring long-term results.
China’s national-level space laboratory will include three modules: the core module, the first and the second experimental modules. The scientific research facilities of the space station mainly include 13 experiment racks, one outdoor experiment platform and a Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST) which has a field of view 300 times greater than Hubble Space Telescope while retaining a similar resolution.
In addition, the core module is also equipped with a facility which could monitor space environment elements such as solar X-ray and high-energy cosmic particles.