Long march launch carrying core module

China launches core module of orbiting space station

Image credit: China Daily via REUTERS

China has successfully launched the core module of its long-planned Chinese Space Station, which could outlive the working lifetime of the ISS.

The uncrewed 18m-long, 22-tonne Tianhe ('Harmony of the Heavens') module was launched from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site on Hainan, using a Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket. After just over eight minutes of flight, the Tianhe space station core module separated from the first stage. After around an hour of flight, its solar array was deployed.

The successful launch was confirmed by Li Shangfu, chief commander of the China Manned Spaceflight Program. Tianhe will slowly raise its orbit to 370km above Earth’s surface, where it will meet the uncrewed Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft in the second half of May.

Tianhe will provide regenerative life support and living quarters for its crews, as well as propulsion to maintain altitude and remain in a stable orbit.

Tianhe has a multi-docking hub to facilitate its construction, allowing crews to embark on activities outside the space station. The core module launch will be followed by two further modules for experiment (Wentian and Mengtian) by the end of 2022 – with which it will form a T-shaped station – as well as cargo supply and at least four crewed missions.

The first crewed mission will involve three astronauts and is scheduled for June. Tianhe will host hundreds of experiments in the unique environment. They will include experiments in space medicine, microgravity combustion, microgravity fluid physics, and at least nine international experiments selected through a program run jointly by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and the China Manned Space Agency.

The Chinese Space Station, which is being entirely developed and managed by Chinese experts, will be the only operational space station other than the ISS. It is expected to operate in orbit for at least a decade and could have a 15-year lifetime; this could allow it to outlast the ISS as the station enters its final years of service (there are no concrete plans for the ISS beyond its 30th anniversary in 2028).

China had expressed interest in joining the ISS, but was blocked from engagement by the US due to a law (the Wolf Amendment) prohibiting Nasa cooperating with its Chinese counterpart. The country has made vast leaps in its space programme since the space station was approved in 1992. In 2019 it became the first national space programme to conduct a soft landing on the far side of the Moon, and a Chinese spacecraft reached Mars more recently.

China is also preparing for the 2024 launch of the Xuntian optical module: an orbiting space telescope comparable in many specifications to the Hubble Space Telescope, but with a field of view hundreds of times greater. Xuntian will dock with the Chinese Space Station if necessary for repairs and maintenance.

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